Bulgaria-Based Egyptian Journalist Mohamed Kamal Alam: Libya's Qaddafi Next in Line after Mubarak's End in Egypt
Interview with Mohamed Kamal Zaki Alam, an Egyptian journalist living in Bulgaria. He was born in Cairo in 1958. He earned an degree in economics in Egypt in 1984, and a degree in journalism in Bulgaria in 1992, and a Ph. D. in international relations in 2000. He has been living in Bulgaria for 24 years, and has a Bulgarian wife, a 16-year-old son, and a 12-year-old daughter. He has worked for a number of Arab media such as Al Ahram, Sawt al Arab, and Al Arabi. He has authored several books. He is the director of the Eastern Europe office of the Arabic Center for Media Studies.
How would you characterize the development of the civil unrest in Egypt and the protests against the regime of Hosni Mubarak?
The civil unrest in Egypt started peacefully. On Tuesday, January 25 the people rallied, organized by the April 6 Youth Movement demanding that the state address their grievances such as corruption, lack of free elections, and the economy. They protested against the fact that the results of the last Parliamentary Elections in Egypt in December 2010 were forged giving over 80% to the ruling National Democratic Party. Several people were killed in the protests the first day.
This became a topic for the ordinary Egyptians in their mosques and churches, where both the Muslims and Christians expressed their outrage, and continued to support the rallied of the April 6 Movement, and their "Day of Anger" on Friday, January 28.
The people came out in the "Day of Anger" thanks to the several young people that started the April 6 Movement on Facebook, with a Facebook group. This group unites many young college students and graduates, who are unhappy with the lack of perspective in Egypt, where only those with good connections manage to get decent jobs.
In addition to educated youth, Egypt has enormous share of its population living below the poverty, with the state paying no attention to them.
For the 30 years that Hosni Mubarak has been in power, the people of Egypt would say, "Let's give the President and the Cabinet 5 years to fix the situation." Then there were five more years, and five more, and five more, without any change.
The last parliamentary elections were especially bad because of the manipulation of the results. The person in charge of the National Democratic Party and Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif is a businessman who become very rich very quickly. You in Bulgaria know what it means when a man becomes very wealthy through politics. After the falsification of the election results the people of Egypt could no longer keep quiet.
According to the police, 30 people were killed in the clashes; but according to the youth movement, over 300 have been killed, over 500 are missing, and 4 500 have been wounded in Egypt so far.
The people saw that the police started shooting against them with no mercy, and then decided to stage the March of a Million on February 1. A total of 8 million protested in the large cities in Egypt.
How do you view Mubarak's reaction to the protests?
It should be noted how the slogans and demands of the protesters evolved. First they wanted a change in the government and the constitution, and to make the state listen to them and address their problems. However, Mubarak has made several blunders that have led the demands of the protesters to grow.
His first blunder was to keep quiet for four days as the protests were escalating. People in the USA and around the world see President Barack Obama address the Americans every day on all sorts of issues. Egypt's President Mubarak was hiding, and addressed the people only after four days of growing protests, when he finally realized that things were getting out of hand.
Mubarak's next blunder was to have the police and the Interior Ministry release from prison criminals and gangsters controlled by the ruling party to throw the streets of the big cities in Egypt in chaos, and to harass the protesters with their looting and marauding.
He did not expect that the people of Egypt would be so smart and organized – they immediately formed militias to guard their rallies and to protect their property against the gangs. They started to detain these gangs of criminals and to turn them over to the army.
This is when the protesters in Egypt changed their slogan and goals, this time already demanding a change of both the system and the President.
Mubarak did not read the message correctly once again, he came out and addressed the people and announced he was replacing the government. Within 10 minutes after his televised address the night of January 28, the people declared that he has to go with the Cabinet.
The President also made another mistake by thinking that his appointment of Omar Suleiman, a military general as Vice President. Mubarak did not have a Vice President for 30 years. Now he appointed Suleiman thinking that this will make the army support him unconditionally.
But when the army went into the streets, the people greeted and welcomed the soldiers, and this completely changed the rules of the game because the military, which was supposed to intimidate the protesters, declared that it will now use force.
Do you think Egypt still faces the possibility of a civil war? The army is known to be a key factor – how is it going to influence the developments in Egypt?
No, not really, the army in Egypt always sides with the people because it is part of the people. But the situation with the police is different. The police have been taught to hate people and to act as if they are above the law, and are liable to punishment.
I can give you a very recent example. About 3-4 months ago a young man was arrested for a petty crime, and died in jail. It turned out that he died because of the beating and the police violence. When his parents received his body, they are that he had no teeth left because of the beating he suffered in the arrest. There was an outrage and an investigation, which declared that man's death was not the fault of the police by his own fault because he resisted.
This case like many others entered the public mind to show the people that whoever was in the hands of the police, can end up as a corpse, and that nobody will help them – not the President, not anybody.
One very important factor about the system in Egypt is that President Hosni Mubarak has led the entire world to believe that he is a guarantor of peace and that Egypt would never rebel against his authority. He has been using hired demonstrators to show public support and love for him.
He has also been preparing his son as his heir to the presidency. The people of Egypt have been demanding for the past five-six years that the President come out and declare that his son will not inherit the president. Mubarak has been keeping quiet.
He hasn't said "Yes" or "No". What is more, in his last statement in which he declared that he will not seek to be reelected in the next elections in September 2011, he did not mention anything about whether his son will seek to be elected.
Egypt has always been a key country for the entire region of the Middle East and North Africa. If Egypt is peaceful, there will be stability in the region. The West and America are making a mistake by not listening to the intelligentsia in Egypt, which says, "We are a guarantee for peace, we want to live in peace but we want to live in peace with pride."
The people of Egypt have seen the silence of the West. I already said this many times – when the Orange Revolution happened in Ukraine in 2004, the West immediately pressured the former leadership of the country. Now there has been a revolution going on in Egypt for several days, and the USA and the West have hardly supported the democratic change. They didn't say they wanted a change, and to support the Egyptians in their demands to be able to elect who governs them.
Do you expect that Mubarak will manage to remain in power till the end of his term?
No, he will be forced out. But the ruling party has had a very evil plan to counter the protests – they started paying bandits and gangs to come out in the streets to demonstrate in support of Mubarak. They have given them weapons to go out against the citizens who are not armed. The army has already stopped such gangs several times.
On February 1, a group sponsored by the ruling party dressed in army uniforms in order to show that the army supports Mubarak and started beating peaceful protesters. A spokesperson of the Defense Ministry immediately declared that anybody who pretends to be in uniform will be sent to a military court, and that the role of the army is to protect the people and the state, and not to meddle in politics.
I just think that our president right know is in shock and doesn't realize with a clear mind what he is doing.
The developments in Egypt appear to be unconditionally connected with the similar processes elsewhere in the Middle East. After Tunisia and now Egypt tackling their autocrats, and protests starting in Sudan, Jordan, and Yemen, how do you expect the situation in the region will develop?
Indeed, thanks to the man in Tunisia, who set himself on fire, and thus managed to light the fire of the revolution in Tunisia, to make the people rise against the dictator. Tunisia's dictator Ben Ali was smart enough to flee the country because he had no way of knowing what would happen the day after.
In Tunisia, when the Defense Minister was given the order to have the army shoot against the people, he said "No, I am also a Tunisian." But the revolution in Tunisia is still not 100% complete, there are still people from the former regime in key positions. They just fire 45 senior police officers for the use of forces against demonstrators.
The good thing is that if the democratic revolution in Egypt succeeds, it will change the face of the Middle East and North Africa. Even in Syria we already saw that young people have started to organize a protest of anger for Friday, February 4.
Their Facebook group already has 7500 people. Look at Yemen! In such an autocratic country, the President made a statement announcing that neither he, nor his son will run for the presidency. This has been a very smart move by him – he is saving the suffering and the potential victims for his country.
If the revolution in Egypt succeeds, the wind of change will wipe out the other dictatorial regimes in the region. I am convinced that the calls for democracy will have a snowball effect. The successful revolution in Egypt will portend the end of Muamar Qaddafi's dictatorship in Libya.
How likely is it that the greatest concern of the West and the USA – the coming to power of radical Islamists in the Middle Eastern countries – such as the Muslim Brotherhood – can materialize in Egypt or elsewhere?
The West and the world are scared that the Islamists will come to power in Egypt, all kinds of radical extremists. This is far from the truth because the protest movement has been inspired and organized by the regular people and the youth.
That is why on Tuesday all leaders of the opposition parties admitted that the protests did not happen thanks to them but thanks to the youth movement. I am myself a supporter of one the parties but I am going to twist the truth – the students and young people are the leaders to the civil unrest.
The Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood also declared that they have not organized and inspired the protests, and that they are a part of the people and will comply with the results of future general elections.
As an EU citizen, I want to give a modest piece of advice to the EU leaders. They must try to understand the mind of the Arabs, of the Arab people. Don't force them to do anything that they don't want to do. Listen to their desires, and the Arabs will act in the interest of Europe. Because young people in the Arab countries want to go to Europe, and have respect for it. If they are treated with respect, they will never become extremists. Only those whose are constantly criticized and affected can become Islamist radicals and terrorists.
If we refer to history, we can identify the mistakes of the West with respect to terrorism and Islamist extremism. You that when the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the USA started promoting a jihad against the godless communists urging the Arab dictatorships, which are now falling down like leaves from a tree, to allow their youth to go fight in Afghanistan to defend the honor of Islam. We have this joke in Arab countries that the US President became a de facto imam urging jihad against Russia. But when the Soviet Union was beaten in Afghanistan, the Americans did not learn that lesson.
What was supposed to happen with the jihadists after the defeat of the Soviet Union? They could not go back to their homes, they were trained to fight, fighting for Islam was their profession. We have been warning in our media in the Arab states since 1978 with respect to Western support for such extremists – because the extremists, once they feel they have become strong, would never succumb to pressure.
The other major factor for radical Islamism is of course the situation with Israel. Whenever the UN votes a resolution demanding measures from Israel, the West never pressures it do adopt them. Whenever the resolutions are against the Arab states, the entire world supports them. This is a great source of grievances for the Arab youth. It really must not be that way. If you look at Islam in itself, it is about believing in one God – the same way like Judaism and Christianity. I keep saying in the media and in my books that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the three volumes of the same book.
You cannot come with a tank to offer me democracy. You can try to convince me with arguments. In Mubarak's case, in Egypt the people did not initially rally against Mubarak, they wanted reforms. But once the silence of the West and the lack of Western support for the democratic revolution also estranged the people. When Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that the West must back Mubarak because "he is our man," this led even the remaining 10% who still supported Mubarak, to want him out.
One former US Ambassador in Sofia once asked me why the Arabs hate America, and I said that we don't hate America and its people but America's policies. Every Arab dreams of living in America, the island of freedom. But supporting dictators cannot be any good.
We are now asking America to finally do the right thing and to support the people of Egypt, not the dictator. A dictator can live for 50 years, and then what? As Turkish President Erdogan told Muburak in an address, individuals die but people and nations are forever. Egypt is a country with 8 000 years of history and deserves respect.
What is your reaction to the recent statement of the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov that Bulgaria does not face a terrorist threat because it has friendly relations "with all Arab countries" and because there are doner kebab shops on every corner in Bulgaria?
During the communist period, a huge chunk of Bulgaria's foreign trade was with the Arab world. Back then the Arabs, even though the communists were godless from their point of view, they supported them by buying the goods of the communist states because of the latter's political support for the Arab countries.
Arabs have had a presence in Bulgaria since the Middle Ages. The connections between the Bulgarian nation and the Arab nation are very old. Unfortunately, some politicians today disrupt it, perhaps not on purpose.
Back in 2008 there was a very insulting case in Bulgaria when in military drills of Bulgarian and US forces the terrorists were dressed as Arabs.
The statement of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov about the Arabs and terrorism, and the doner kebab sandwiches is also very insulting. Nobody talks about how many very good Arab doctors live and work in Bulgaria and are respected by the Bulgarian society.
I think that Boyko Borisov can lose the votes of the Arabs in Bulgaria, which are about 15 000 votes. The Bulgarian citizens of Arab origin traditionally support the Bulgarian Socialist Party. But when Borisov emerged a couple of years ago, the overwhelming majority of them voted for him seeing the support of the Bulgarians that he enjoys.
But now he must owes an apology to the Arabs in Bulgaria. We know his style of talking and that he was probably joking but this is a joke that hurts because my son in school, who was born here and is 100% Bulgarian – he had his classmates make fun of him for making doner and falafel. He was very affected. Mr. Borisov can lose these 15 000 votes because of this comment.
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He is probably right about Libya.
But what Egypt needs the most now is a new constitution.
The present Egyptian constitution madates election within 60 days. Everyone elected under the present constitution will have dictatorical powers.
I think the Egyptians deserve a good look at any new candidates before they buy the goods.