Secretary General Amr Moussa is widely expected to run for president of Egypt in the country’s upcoming elections. Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous sits down with Amr Moussa in the headquarters of the Arab League next to Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo for a conversation about Egypt’s revolution, his potential presidential candidacy, the military’s role in Egypt, treaties with Israel, and popular uprisings across the Middle East. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: In Egypt, a committee of legal experts has announced reforms to several articles of the constitution that would open presidential elections to more competition and impose a two-term limit on future presidents. The changes will be put to a national referendum next month.
One of those who is widely expected to run is Secretary General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa. Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous interviewed him in Cairo last week. Sharif is here in our studio in New York.
Sharif, talk about who Amr Moussa is.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amr Moussa is a career diplomat and probably one of the best well-known politicians in the Middle East. He’s served as a diplomat for the past 50 years. Twenty years he served under the Mubarak government, first as deputy representative to the United Nations, then ambassador to India. From 1991 to 2001, he was Egypt’s foreign minister. In 2001 he was replaced and put in as secretary general of the Arab League, where he’s served for the last 10 years.
Two days after Mubarak was forced out of office, he announced that he is going to step down from the Arab League position in March, this month. This is widely viewed as him preparing to run for president. He has — there’s been some confusion over whether he’s officially declared his candidacy. After these constitutional reforms were announced on Sunday, he responded to reporters’ questions saying, "Now that any Egyptian can run, Insha’Allah, I will run. God willing, I will run." That was reported by the state news agency, as saying that he has officially. He denied he has officially announced it. I’m sure that he will run. And he’s seen by many as a leading presidential candidate because he’s well known. And this is an issue that’s important because these elections will be held in six months, and many think that’s not enough time for other people to establish themselves before him.
But I was — after a lot of calls, I was granted an interview with him in the Arab League headquarters, which is just outside of Tahrir, and I asked him about his potential candidacy, about Israel, about the Egyptian uprising.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the interview.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Secretary General Amr Moussa, welcome to Democracy Now!
SECRETARY GENERAL AMR MOUSSA: Thank you. Welcome to the Arab League.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Thank you. It’s been 10 days since Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign following an unprecedented popular uprising. What are your thoughts on what happened and where Egypt stands today?
SECRETARY GENERAL AMR MOUSSA: Well, Egypt today is going through a transitional period, where things will certainly move in the direction of preparing the ground for the next phase, or the era of a new Egypt — the preparation for the election of the president, election of parliament, drafting of a new constitution, preparing a vision for Egypt of the future after the transitional period. Now, the work centers on amending the constitution, dissolving the parliament, and other steps, like releasing the prisoners, political prisoners. And all those steps are positive ones, changing the atmosphere. And it is my opinion that Egypt, after the 25th of January, is different, totally different, than the one before that date. It’s a different Egypt. And therefore we have to prepare for that, with a vision, a constitution, new faces, young people. And that’s why I am really optimistic about the future of Egypt, after this revolution, or uprising, as you have described.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Do you intend to run for president?
SECRETARY GENERAL AMR MOUSSA: Well, it depends on the amendments to the constitution and how they are framing the new basis of the election of the president. Then, at that moment, one can decide as an Egyptian citizen. My opinion is that now I have to move from my job as secretary general of the Arab League to be just an Egyptian private citizen. And from that standpoint, I will decide what should be my next move.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: What would your electoral platform be? What issues would you run on?
SECRETARY GENERAL AMR MOUSSA: Well, as I’m telling you, there must be a new vision, a new vision that should be based on two main items: democracy and reform. Under democracy, there are a lot of issues that we have to talk about and laws that have to be enacted and steps that have to be taken. Under reform, it is a wide agenda to reform the aspects of life, the basic things, the basis for the Egyptian life. What happened before, in fact, produced, caused tension and a lot of what you may call a situation that makes the Egyptian society suffers and does not function properly. We have to get back the society to function properly, considering all the major items which form the life and build the life of any society — education, health, the young people, women, the rights, human rights, transparency. There are so many things that will have to be tackled, and they have to be reformed, in the right sense of the term "reform," not just a superficial one, but deep reform that would bring back — compensate for what we have lost for so many years and build a new Egyptian society.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: You were a part of the Mubarak government for more than a decade. Some have criticized you, saying you didn’t call for reform then. What’s your response to that?
SECRETARY GENERAL AMR MOUSSA: Well, I was foreign minister, yes, for 10 years, and I had my own way of thinking and acting and stands that I have taken. I was the foreign minister of Egypt at that time, that I cannot deny. I should not deny. In fact, I must say that this was a period of time where I have done several things to serve our country and to streamline our policy and to be very clear in expressing to the world where Egypt stands. That, I have done. I’m not born yesterday. To say that I have done anything or nothing up until this moment, that is not the case. Yes, I was a participant. I was ambassador of Egypt also for 10 years, and then foreign minister of Egypt. This has to be underlined. I’m not foreign minister of X or Y, but foreign minister of Egypt and ambassador of Egypt. Those points will have to be underlined.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The military is in power now. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces rules the country. What is your view of the military and how they’ve handled the situation thus far?
SECRETARY GENERAL AMR MOUSSA: Yeah, I believe that this is, as we were talking, a transitional situation. And it will end by electing a president, that the people will elect him, democratically elected. And therefore, the Egypt after the transition period will certainly be different than the whole situation in the last 60 years. This is a new Egypt, and we have to stress this point.
I believe that the Supreme Council is doing whatever it can and doing fine. Insofar as this transitional period is concerned, we need such performance. We need such actions and steps and political steps that have been taken. But with the election of the president, the new president, that the people will elect him, the people will choose him, then this is the beginning of the new era.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: There are strikes continuing across Egypt, across sectors of the economy. The military has warned against these strikes. Do you think the military should not make such warnings against the strikers?
SECRETARY GENERAL AMR MOUSSA: No, those strikes are the result of the bad management of so many things in our society — in government or public sector or private sector. Therefore, they came out with their complaints and their aspirations. I believe the time will come to tackle that — not in the transitional period, but in the new era of Egypt, the new government of Egypt, the new president of Egypt. They have — the strikes have declared, have explained, the position or the complaints, the malaise, the — you can say even the aspirations, the hopes, of several segments of the Egyptian society. That’s fine. This has to be noted and has to be tackled when the new Egypt is emerging, that the labor force needs reconsideration of their position, of their salaries, of their rights, and also the fellahin in the villages, the students, the young people, the women, and so on. This will come. But this is a — what you may call a warning signal, a wake-up call, that we are here and we have demands. So this, I believe, has been duly noted. So when the Supreme Council calls for — he is saying, in fact, "OK, now we know. But at this time, we need calm." We’ll see how things and how the dialogue between the Supreme Council and those forces will take place, but this is how I understand it.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: On the foreign policy front, do you think that treaties with Israel should be renegotiated?
SECRETARY GENERAL AMR MOUSSA: I believe that the Egyptian-Israeli relations and Arab-Israeli relations have to be explained thoroughly in order not to have a lot of confusion about them. The Arab position vis-à-vis Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict is based on the Arab Initiative of 2002. And there is nothing, no doubt, about the existence of this initiative and our commitment, all of us, to that — to it. On the Egyptian front and its bilateral relations with Israel, there is a treaty, and the treaty will be respected. What the Supreme Council has announced is clear and leaves nobody with a doubt in his mind.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: You’ve been very critical of Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Egypt is complicit in this blockade. Do you think that the border should be opened and the siege lifted?
SECRETARY GENERAL AMR MOUSSA: Definitely. The siege should be lifted. There is no question about that, and no hesitation. This is —
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: On the Egyptian side, as well.
SECRETARY GENERAL AMR MOUSSA: The siege has to be lifted. On the Egyptian side, I believe now the gates are open and with the presence of Egyptian forces and in cooperation with the Palestinian in order to have something disciplined, but allows our brethren in Gaza to get to their jobs, to travel wherever they want to travel, and according to an understanding between the two authorities.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: What is your view of the Obama administration’s stance during this uprising? Some have been critical of it, calling it wavering and unclear. And the U.S. has been supporting for 30 years the Mubarak government. Do you think that, without that support, the Mubarak government would have fallen quicker?
SECRETARY GENERAL AMR MOUSSA: Well, the positions taken were, as you said, wavering between yes and no, and go and stay, and things of that kind. There was no firm American stand of support or of opposition. But this is the — what you — the type of policy that we have seen on the peace in the Middle East, on stability in the region, democracy in the region, and so on. This is the type of diplomacy that we became familiar with, unfortunately. We need firm positions on peace, on the future of stability in the region, rather than wavering between one opinion and the other, the day and next day.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: You’re still secretary general of the Arab League. There’s uprisings happening now in Libya, in Bahrain, in Yemen. There’s been violent government crackdowns on these uprisings in those three countries. Some have — there’s human rights groups have been critical of you and the Arab League for not condemning these actions by these governments against these popular uprisings.
SECRETARY GENERAL AMR MOUSSA: No, no, we have done that, yesterday, in a very clear statement, and today, in another one, that they have to stop. The using violence against the demonstrations has to come to an end immediately, and that the dealing with such expression of opinion by the people should not be accepted. So, yesterday, in a very clear-cut statement — I am astonished that some have not read it. It was on the computer, on the Facebook, on the site of the Arab League, in the newspapers, the news bars. So I believe that is what we have done as a regional organization. We talked about the violence, about the dead and the wounded. We talked about the way to deal with such situations. There is a wave in the Arab world, wave in the Middle East, wave in North Africa, that all of us want change. And this is a historical development. It is a new trend. It will not be stopped by violence. You see, violence has been tried, but then, dialogue is — and change should be the address — should be the goal. Our position on this was very clear.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The uprising in Egypt was a secular uprising. It was started by the youth on January 25th, but many groups joined it. The Muslim Brotherhood joined it. They now have announced they intend to form a political organization, a political party. What’s your view of their role in Egypt?
SECRETARY GENERAL AMR MOUSSA: Whose role?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The Muslim Brotherhood.
SECRETARY GENERAL AMR MOUSSA: Well, Muslim Brotherhood is part and parcel of the Egyptian political scene. We cannot deny that. But at the same time, it was clear that this change, this revolution, this uprising, was not instigated by them, nor led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood was part of it. It has a corner in the — what we have seen in the square and in other uprisings and other demonstrations in our cities. So, the Muslim Brotherhood is part of the scene. If you recognize that, I believe it is healthier to recognize it and to allow them to express themselves clearly and formally through a party, through whatever other mechanism. It is good that they were part of the dialogue that was initiated during the uprising and then part of the consultations that followed and part of the constitutional committee that the Supreme Council has established. This would put them very clearly on the theater before everybody — you say your opinion; I will approve of it, accept it, or reject it — rather than we just don’t know where do they stand.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Do you think new candidates and new parties will be ready, organized, funded in time, in six months? Some think six months is too short.
SECRETARY GENERAL AMR MOUSSA: Too short for this. But now there is a party that has been approved only a couple of days back, which is Al-Wasat party. I understand that many of the young people and others of the 25th January movement intended to establish — to ask for a permission or a license to also build a party. And this is healthy. We need those parties of the 25th of January, of the liberal trend, of the Muslim trend, that all of them have to agree that they are working under the wide umbrella of democracy and in defending this democracy. So, if democracy is the address, you can have under it from right to left, and Egypt will be safe. The constitution will also be one of the important safeguards for this democratic move and democratic process, that would have parties, would have elections, would have parties that win. And I am sure that an intense debate between liberals, conservatives, leftists, rightists, etc., will be the result of this new open atmosphere in Egypt.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Two more questions. Some say Egypt should switch to a parliamentary system rather than a presidential one for governance. What are your thoughts?
SECRETARY GENERAL AMR MOUSSA: Well, I believe that parliamentary system is a good one, but it has to — we have to prepare for it. Today, you cannot have a parliamentary system, because you don’t have enough parties or ready parties or some even serious parties. You have — you do have some. But they are not ready to contest elections of that kind that will build or prepare for the new Egypt. So I believe that a presidential system for this period of time, for five years or 10 years, that — and the constitution should be revisited to see whether — to consider whether the parliamentary system now, the country is ready for it or not.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Finally, this uprising in Egypt was watched by the world, inspired much of the world. You’re a leading figure in Egypt across the Arab world. Why do you think this happened in this way? And what do you think it can — the message that it sends to the international community?
SECRETARY GENERAL AMR MOUSSA: First, Egypt is central to this region and has an important place on the world map, political map. Therefore, whatever happens here is observed, is watched with a lot of attention. So, once this happened, everybody, worldwide, region-wide, expected that the domino effect will work, after the Egyptian revolution or the Egyptian uprising. So I believe that we are now — as I said before, the winds of change are sweeping this region. And once the Egyptian revolution, which we have seen and admired, has succeeded, or is on its way to succeed — and we have to make it succeed — this will inspire the rest of the region — not only the Middle East, by the way, North Africa and the rest. I was reading an article this morning about the effects of the Egyptian revolution in India. See, as far as India. And it was debated also in China. I read that in some international newspapers. So that shows the weight of the developments in Egypt, of the revolution in Egypt.
Very inspiring, and very expressive of the Egyptian active involvement in their own affairs, because we were accused of — we don’t care about that; as long as there is a piece of bread and a piece of cheese, OK, nobody will raise it up. No, the young people, or the under people, of Egypt have expressed themselves differently. They talked about freedom. They talked about the future. They talked about the role of Egypt. This is very important. And this is the message. This is the message that now people can change. When they want to change, they are determined to change, they succeed in changing. This message is going around all over the world, and in particular in this region.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Thank you very much.
SECRETARY GENERAL AMR MOUSSA: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa speaking to Democracy Now!’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous. Moussa is stepping down as head of the Arab League this month. He is widely expected to run for president of Egypt.