“I Didn’t See it Coming”

Former National Democratic Party Secretary General Hossam Badrawi tells how the Tahrir revolution looked from inside the regime

CAIRO REVIEW: What happened in Egypt?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: It’s a revolution. It changed the status of Egypt and it will definitely affect the future. Unexpectedly, it is the middle-class, educated people that made the change. Other sectors of the society have joined in. Some sectors are benefiting more. But the major move of the people: it is much more effective than in the revolution of 1919. And definitely more credible than 1952, because it’s from the people, not the army. Egypt is making history for the Middle East.

CAIRO REVIEW: Looking at it from the inside, did you see it coming?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: I didn’t see it coming in that way. But the ceiling of my expectations was much less than what happened. In 1990, we were many people working for reform in Egypt from outside the government. The structure that had all of us was the New Civic Forum, led by Dr. Said El-Naggar. Some of us decided we can make the change from inside. I represented that group. Others decided to make the change as opposition. Some others stayed independent. But there is a network between us. Because we are looking for liberal thinking. We were all for a free economy, democracy, human rights. We decided to play different roles from different positions. And, I used to tell my friends, the most difficult position is mine. It is easy to be an opposition from outside. It’s much more difficult on the inside and keep your credibility by saying what you want to say. And bear in mind the fact that you’re not implementing what you want.

CAIRO REVIEW: What did you think would happen?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: I thought by accumulated pressure, we could change Article 77 [in the constitution] and have limitations on the president’s terms, and change Article 76 for the way the elections can be done. And at the same time, remove the emergency [law] situation. And make the changes that implement human rights issues in the right structure. There’s a document coming from me as a responsible person for the UPR, the Universal Political Review, of Egypt in early 2010 [and] stated all these facts. I presented it to the United Nations despite the fact that I was in the NDP, which put me in conflict with the party at the time. If Article 77 was going to change and limit the president’s term, I was going to be so happy. I thought it would be an opening for everything, for political reform. I would have been satisfied if I’d seen limitation of terms and implementation of human rights. Obviously, what happened [in the revolution] is much more than that.

CAIRO REVIEW: And you didn’t see it coming?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: No, I didn’t see it coming. I expected change, but I didn’t see it coming. Not that way. I thought with the change of the president, the whole country would be changed. I thought [President] Mubarak should have announced he wouldn’t run again. I was advocating that. I thought by just changing that, most changes would happen by default.

CAIRO REVIEW: So you didn’t see a popular protest movement coming up to effect change?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: No, I didn’t see it that way. I didn’t expect the middle-class people to come together that way and be that effective. It was a good surprise.

CAIRO REVIEW: Was that a common perception in the party, the president and others didn’t see the wave coming?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: I think so. I realized on the first day, some people didn’t realize what was happening even at the time it was happening. Every response from the president was too little too late, all the time. As I was given the post to direct the NDP in those four days, I had access to him and the group around him. I didn’t have it before. I didn’t have it afterwards. But during that time, I realized that they are responding always too late and too little. They don’t evaluate the magnitude of what’s happening. My role in those four days was to open everyone’s eyes, that this reality has to be respected and that the president has to step down now. That “now” was not accepted, day after day after day.

CAIRO REVIEW: Were you able to say that personally to the president?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: Personally, yes, the first day I met him. I told him he has to respect his promises to the people by amending the constitutional term [limits] and move all his authority to his vice president. I thought this is going to be more constitutional and that has to be done in the way people believe it. So he has to be clear about that, that he is not going to practice his presidency, except for one issue: to call for the referendum on the constitution, and that people should see and believe that is happening and it should be real. The delivery of his speeches did not give the impression that this was real. That was the defect. Until now I still think that moving the authority to vice president and his stepping aside from the presidency would have led the country in a more constitutional way than what is happening now.

CAIRO REVIEW: Did you mean that he resign, or hand over power?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: Hand over the power to the vice president, and to respect the constitution, so that he would have only one role, calling for the referendum. His role will be only one thing to do.

CAIRO REVIEW: But he should remain as president?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: Remain as president outside of the circle of authority. So he passes all his authority, gives it to the vice president, and moves geographically somewhere else, so he is not part of making decisions. And have things done constitutionally, and call for early elections once the constitution was amended. That was my opinion that I told him face to face.

CAIRO REVIEW: Did you ever just ask him to completely resign the presidency, as he did on February 11?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: No, I didn’t advise that. But every day that passed, I realized even the advice [I gave him] wouldn’t be accepted [by the revolution]. On the last day, I told him that even if you take my advice now, it can be successful only 10 or 15 percent. You’re late. People do not believe there’s an honest desire to step away and have the constitution be amended, and elections to be done as early as possible. That was the safest way the country can go, in my opinion.

“I’m afraid of a sort of McCarthyite attitude, that once you’re different in opinion, you’ll be taken hostage by the fact you’re different. As if we are moving from one kind of dictatorship to another kind of dictatorship.”

CAIRO REVIEWWhat was President Mubarak’s reaction to that advice? Did he deny there was a problem?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: Actually not. We had meetings more than three times. On Wednesday, I was not giving him advice. I was giving my statement as the secretary general of the ruling party, a position he assigned me to have two days before. I told him that from the meetings I had from different political parties and with the people in Tahrir—I had many people there with the young people—that my political understanding was that the problem isn’t in taking the action. The challenge is that they don’t believe that you are taking the action. It wasn’t advice. It was a request. And when the request was not met the way we agreed upon, I resigned.

CAIRO REVIEWHe disagreed with the request?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: No, he agreed. He understood it. He brought his legal people to make his statement on Wednesday. When I left, I was expecting him to give his statement on Wednesday, and he didn’t give it. So it was clear to me that somebody else had called him. On Thursday, I made another attempt, that he should give his statement. It is already coming to be late. He told me that he is going to give his statement by the end of the day. Then they waited and waited until 10 p.m. or something like that. The statement came in my opinion with the worst delivery, in spite of the fact that it has all the content. But the delivery was not believable to the people. At that level I was cut from communication. I could not be part of the decision making anymore. I waited. I tried to communicate and couldn’t. So I resigned.

CAIRO REVIEWIn the speech, he followed the advice?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: Yes, it followed my advice. But we had an agreement that the core of his speech should be that he was giving away his authority, clear cut. This was said in three seconds. If you look somewhere, you might not even have noticed. The delivery of the speech was not coinciding with the meaning. He started talking about himself and gave the impression that he is there. This was a big mistake. He gave his sharing of the grief of the young people who died. This was a request of the young people I met and I asked for. He separated between the revolutionary and the criminal acts. That was a request, that he has to give it to the people. But at the end of the day, if history looks at the core without the delivery system, then you realize he gave away his powers, and gave the order for constitutional amendments. So he’s not needed as a president anymore, only to call for the referendum. He didn’t say that, he didn’t press on that, he didn’t give the impression that this was the situation. The content was there, but the meaning and understanding was not there.

CAIRO REVIEWHe was not in denial about what was happening in Tahrir? He had already dismissed the leader of the party and even Gamal Mubarak.

HOSSAM BADRAWI: That was my request, by the way. That was my request. When he assigned me as secretary general, I said everyone has to resign. I have to have full authority to reform the party.

CAIRO REVIEWSo you think he was trying to remain part of the system, not to exit?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: I think the circle around him was putting him to that situation. I had the feeling that he really wanted a constitutional path. And that he’s stepping down anyway, anytime. But again, the decision and timing is part of the formula. And I think they were not—his advisors—were not helpful to let him take the right action at right time.

CAIRO REVIEWWhy?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: I’m not sure, but probably they were in denial more than him.

CAIRO REVIEWWhy did the president finally resign on the Friday?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: I saw it coming. After his speech on Thursday, and what happened Thursday night and Friday, it was clear that it is the point of no return. I think he had no choice.

CAIRO REVIEWDid the army go to him and say he had to step down?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: All theories are possible. I was cut completely after I left the president’s house on Thursday. On Thursday evening and Friday, I was like you, listening to news and seeing it on TV. I was cut. I was not connected. I tried but I couldn’t. I came on TV [and resigned]. The only way for me was to give a statement to the BBC so it becomes public. At the end of the day, the publicity is the reality.

CAIRO REVIEWWhy do you think the revolution happened?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: I think the reaction of the police was one of the factors to create the movement. Because the excessive use of violence was part of the accumulation of other people to come in. At one level, the fear has gone. The numbers made it possible for the fear of the security forces to go away. Everybody underestimated the capacity of the youth to represent their opinion. There was underestimation of that capacity by the whole society, even by their parents, who joined them later.

CAIRO REVIEWWhat led to January 25?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: It was the accumulation. I think it’s the human integrity and the human rights, more than anything else. It was not those who do not have employment. It was people with good employment in the streets. I think it was humiliation. I call it chronic anger, a chronic state of anger. In medicine, the chronic situation, you get adapted to the pain until it becomes acute. The acute exacerbation made all chronic anger come up. Part of it was, in my opinion, the way the state was dealing with the people, humiliating them in everyday activities. The relationship of the individuals with the police. They way you get your services from the state, from the cabinet, from the public officials. Everything had to do with whether you have a wasta (connections) or pay a bribe. Everybody was telling their kids, “If a policeman stops you, don’t argue.” These situations were elevating the dissatisfaction and anger. Not acute enough to revolt, but it’s there. Trigged by something, everybody came together.

CAIRO REVIEWWhat was the trigger?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: The excessive use of violence within the police. Khaled Said [a young Egyptian killed in police custody in Alexandria in 2010] was part of it. And the excessive use of violence in Tahrir on the first day. On the first day everyone was calling for freedom and justice. It was not about food or unemployment. That was a collective request of everyone. As they got larger and larger, the line of fear has gone. And then with the late response, and the little response, objectives went higher. If on January 25 the president had come out to the people and said, “I’m dissolving the government and not running [for re-election],” probably everyone was going to be happy. As you go day after day, and people get hurt and die, and you are not seeing the leader of the country coming to talk to the people for three days, this was cumulative bad management of the crisis. It made the chronic stage into an acute stage.

CAIRO REVIEWWas the “succession issue” a factor? The 2010 parliamentary elections? The Gamal Mubarak question?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: I add it as a factor to the chronic anger. There were no clear-cut announcements [about Gamal Mubarak] that people could protest against. But it created the feeling that something weird was being cooked. The president should have come clearly and said that he wasn’t going to run, and that no one from his family was going to run, to give that kind of satisfaction. The parliamentary election in 2010 was another important factor. In a meeting after the election, in the party they were announcing we had the largest victory any party had. I raised my hand and said, from a limited party point of view, it might be true. But from a political point of view, I think this is the largest defeat we’ve had. Because if you do not have opposition in the parliament, you will have them in the streets. And if it was in my hand, I would definitely have worked harder for the opposition to have them represented in the parliament. And I had that conflict with the administration, because I was sure that playing alone is not in the benefit of the country. And having the parliament unilaterally ruled was not going to be accepted by anyone. In spite of the fact that they had so many proofs that they won fair and square against the Muslim Brotherhood. It was a disaster and added to the chronic anger.

CAIRO REVIEWWhat was your assumption about Gamal Mubarak’s intentions?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: I was there for eight years, and this was never discussed between me and him, never raised as an issue in the party. But actions give different impressions. I don’t know if there was a smaller circle talking about that and I wasn’t a part of it. His presence and his leading of the party and his appearances and visits to different areas of the country, gave the impression that he’s politically portraying himself. He never talked about this with me, maybe with others. I once told him in the party, that the relationship of the party with the government is not [correct], because if it was [correct], it should not depend on the president or the son of the president. It should depend on the dynamics of politicians. There was so much implementation of policies that we worked out that was not done. And I cannot make any difference. It is always going back to the president, whether he gives instructions to the government or not. It is all a relationship between the government and the president’s house.

CAIRO REVIEWThe NDP is not a real party?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: It was a real party, but very centralized. There were very good people. Excellent policy papers were done with lots of efforts from intellectuals and politicians, learning from the experiences of other countries. But that stops here. Whether that was being taken seriously by the government was something else.

CAIRO REVIEWIn the upper levels of the NDP, was it your assumption that Gamal was being prepared to become president?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: Yes. It was an assumption, yes.

CAIRO REVIEWWas this ever an issue to raise that this was not a good idea, and could damage the president and the country?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: Yes. But sometimes when you say that to the person, he says “No, I’m not intending,” then the discussion becomes “Who said I want to do that?” And the president says “My son is just helping me.” The discussion stops.

CAIRO REVIEW: What was going through your mind when you saw the NDP headquarters being burned?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: Actually, I wasn’t only looking at the NDP being burned, but all police stations being burned down across the country. And all prisons being opened for prisoners to go away. And the NDP locations in eleven governorates being burned, and synchronized in the same way: we get in, steal contents, burn papers, get the hard disks of the computers. I don’t think this was the revolution in Tahrir. It was much more organized than that. You have to think that there is a mastermind. I cannot assume [who is responsible] because I don’t have any evidence. Don’t tell me people in the streets going for their dignity and freedom organized that. It cannot be. We have to see who is going to benefit. The story did not come to the final chapter. So let’s see who will take power, and then we’ll know who’s the beneficiary.

CAIRO REVIEWWhat happens next?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: I want a transition to take place in a secular, civil structure. However, if the parliamentary elections are being held early, I think Egypt won’t come to a stable situation for a long time. If we do not give time for parties coming out of the revolution to establish themselves and be a part of the coming elections, we’re not giving them equal opportunity with others who are already structured and ready for those elections. The army has played a neutral role. I think they’re overwhelmed with responsibility they are not trained to do. And I believe they would like to pass authority as fast as possible. But I hope “as fast as possible” doesn’t affect the right decision. We have fragmentation now. We need  one-and-a-half to two years.

CAIRO REVIEWWould the Muslim Brotherhood win the election?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: They would be the only party inside the parliament. The NDP isn’t there. So other members would be individuals, independents running without a cover.

CAIRO REVIEWIs the NDP finished?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: No, I don’t think so, but I think it needs years to recover with new branding. It used to depend on being a part of the ruling structure, so it lost its magnet for people who want to become part of the government. But it is still the only structure that exists other than the Brotherhood. The NDP will need three or four or five years of working hard to change the image. There’s a very negative impression. You have to rebrand.

CAIRO REVIEW: Is the political role of the Mubaraks in Egypt now over?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: Yes, it is.

CAIRO REVIEWDoes Gamal Mubarak have any chance to be part of the rebirth of the NDP?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: No. I don’t think he has any role in the future.

CAIRO REVIEWWhat are your plans?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: I’m just listening to people, analyzing, and giving my fair opinion. I meet with all political sectors. And I think in the turbulence that exists, people have to wait and see. If there is a party that can come from down up, I’ll join.

CAIRO REVIEWHow has Egypt fundamentally changed?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: There is great opportunity for Egypt to move forward politically. It will affect the economy. I’m an optimistic person by nature. I see the opportunity there. But there are huge risks. If we fall into linear thinking that does not accept differences of opinion—either a military or a conservative religious one—neither would be best for the country.

CAIRO REVIEWThere’s a risk the military might take control completely?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: I don’t know. They are there now.

CAIRO REVIEWYou’re worried about the Brotherhood?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: My intellectual structure is to be an open person, respect diversity, and accept differences in opinion. I have nothing against a woman president, or a Coptic Egyptian president, so long as it’s through a democratic process. I definitely would like to see citizenship rights regardless of any religious belief. I see that that path might not be the path of the Muslim Brotherhood for the time being. Yet, they have good things to offer. This is the only thing that makes me worry. I have so many friends in the Muslim Brotherhood, good people and excellent people. They have good intentions. They should be part of the political scene, but they shouldn’t impose their style on me.

CAIRO REVIEWShould the future system hold the former regime accountable?

HOSSAM BADRAWI: That worries me very much, the fact that everything is being taken now by impressions. The rule of law should be the rule of law. We cannot accuse any person and accuse and incriminate and judge at the same time. That’s very scary. I’m afraid of a sort of McCarthyite attitude, that once you’re different in opinion, you’ll be taken hostage by the fact you’re different. As if we are moving from one kind of dictatorship to another kind of dictatorship.

Hossam Badrawi has served as a member of the Egyptian parliament and is a professor of medicine at Cairo University. He joined the ruling National Democratic Party in 2000, telling the media that he hoped to play a role in reforming Egypt from within the system. He became a member of the NDP’s Policy Secretariat, headed by Gamal Mubarak, and in February 2011 amid mass protests against the Egyptian regime he replaced Safwat El-Sherif as NDP secretary general. He held the job for only four days before resigning from the post and the party. Cairo Review Managing Editor Scott MacLeod interviewed Badrawi in Cairo on February 21, 2011.

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