In an exclusive interview with Middle East Eye, Ayman Nour, a leading figure in the Egyptian opposition and former member of parliament, talks about a soon-to-be announced National Assembly that "unites everyone" and brings together several influential political figures including self-exiled members of the Muslim Brotherhood, liberal opposition groups and members of Egypt's main opposition parties.
Nour also explains that the position of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is weak given the waning regional and international support for him. He says that although the Egyptian people fear change at the moment, Sisi's days in power are numbered, dismissing the possibility that Sisi had been given a lifeline by incoming US president Donald Trump.
MEE: What is the idea behind the National Assembly ?
AN: One of the most important steps taken by the opposition is to create a National Assembly. The idea dates back to October 2010, just a few months after I was released from [then-Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak’s prisons, after four years of detention.
I started a “Knock on the door” campaign where I tried to get people in Egypt together and our slogan was: “Change Now”. I spoke with everyone and came to the conclusion that what people needed was some form of opposition that would unite everyone under one front.
At that time the campaign was to stop Gamal Mubarak taking over from his father. The first assembly encompassed all the opposition including the Brotherhood and the Muslim movements. We chose Hasan Nafaa who was a liberal but also an academic. He was independent and neutral to everyone. Four months on, Mohamed ElBaradei arrived in Egypt in February 2011.
We had 33 representatives of the whole campaign and we decided to visit him in his home. They included all the big names in Egypt at the time: Mohamed Beltagi, Hasan Sultan, Hasan Nafaa, Yahia El-Gamal, Hamdeen Sabahi, Georges Ishaak and myself.
The meeting lasted until one in the morning and we agreed that we would come under one umbrella that would include everyone including Dr Baradei, and we changed the name. We had seven basic goals at that time, including the legal monitoring of the election, combatting corruption in the election process, but by then those goals also included changing Mubarak.
The parliamentary elections in December 2010 were rigged and as a result we got the worst parliament in our history. The National Assembly decided to boycott the elections but Wafd and the Muslim Brotherhood broke ranks. However on the eve of the elections, they decided to recommit to the assembly’s decision and they also withdrew.
We created at that time an alternative parliament in parallel with the official one and we had 100 personalities as part of it. In fact in the headquarters of my party, we recreated the design of the parliament, so that the 100 people would sit in an exact replication of the official parliament.
Mubarak came out the next day, and said: “Let them have fun,” and he said it inside the official parliament and it became a famous phrase. Thirty-three days later we really had fun. Because the revolution had started. And the first thing he did was to disband the parliament which he had created in the fake elections and then he himself resigned.
Crowds gather in Cairo to protest against Hosni Mubarak on 25 January 2011 (AFP)
To this day the name of National Assembly resonates in Egyptian society. We never participated in any union after the revolution, neither in the national alliance nor in the revolutionary council. Nor did we play any part after the coup.
MEE: Who have you gathered under your big tent?
AN: Two years ago we created a group called the G10. This group had worked on the National Assembly and we have been preparing for this ever since.
They are: Dr Seif Abdel Fatah, an academic and an advisor to Mohamed Morsi, who resigned after the constitutional declaration and left Egypt a year and a half ago.
Dr Tharwat Nefaa, a liberal member of the Shura Council and the vice president of the Al-Gabha al-Democratiya party. His party joined Naguib Sawiris's party, the Free Egyptians.
Tarek al-Zomor, the president of the Construction and Development Party, the political arm of Jamaa al-Islamiya. The groups renounced violence. Tarek was accused of assassinating Sadat and imprisoned for 33 years. He is in Qatar and considered one of the most reasonable and balanced people against violence.
There is me, Ayman Nour, and then there is Dr Mohamed Mahsoub, a former minister in Morsi’s government and the vice-president of the al-Wasat Party, living in France.
'The problem in Egypt is that people fear the repercussions of change'
Then we have Hatem Azzam, the former deputy head of the al-Wasat Party. We also have a poet Abdul-Rahman Yusuf, son of Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi but he is an independent liberal and he was part of the National Society for Change in 2010.
Then we have Dr Amr Darrag and Mr Yehia Hamed, I put these at the end because they did not participate in the declaration for the preparatory committee, due to internal problems with the Muslim Brotherhood. And also Ehab Shiha, the head of Asala, a Salafist party, and Mohammed Kamel, a member of the political office of the 6 April Movement.
Now what we have declared was a preparatory committee and not a national assembly, and soon we will declare the assembly. We are creating commissions in each country including inside Egypt. I think soon we will conclude the procedures of formation and we are going to declare the assembly as the umbrella that unites everyone.
'It's a union of people who do not seek revenge'
MEE: Where does the opposition go from here?
AN: The problem in Egypt is that people fear the repercussions of change. This is the position of regional powers and the international community as well. The General Assembly is the alternative to the idea of this binary team of the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Many powers in the region feel they have to keep [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi until there is an alternative.
It’s the same with [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad. If the alternative to him is an Islamic group, then the feeling is that it is better to stay with Assad. Sisi is playing the same card. Mubarak also told the world that it is either me or terrorism.
So our idea is to present Egypt with a participatory force for political and social groups. It is meant to reassure the people, the Copts, state institutions. It’s a union of people who are non-violent and do not seek revenge. They have balanced political positions which can accommodate difference. This is the message that we are taking to the region, where there is fear that the Muslim Brotherhood will retake power, a region that thinks that the only alternative to Sisi can come from the military itself.
We are now presenting the possibility of a civil-military partnership which allows for a civilian assembly. It does not mean the rise of the Brotherhood but it does mean the Brotherhood would no longer be in prison. They would not be distanced from the political process which would include everyone. This is the way in which a National Assembly has credit with the Egyptian street, because it allows everyone to play a role.
MEE: How bad is the economy?
AN: From an economic point of view we have got to a point where we are close to free fall. The price of the currency is totally uncontrolled but there is a phenomenon that is happening more and more. Businesses are closing down and that sector is being replaced by production from the military, but that production from the military is not paying the labour market, it is not paying taxes, so the tax revenue is in free fall as well.
And they are printing money. The printing in 2016 was highest in Egyptian history - 450bn Egyptian pounds ($23.1bn). If you go to Cairo right now, you will be surprised at the amount of new money that you get everywhere. There is a point from which there is no way back.
MEE: Do you agree that the most likely scenario is that Sisi will be replaced by another member of the military?
AN: If someone from the military takes over, then it should be for a transition period which lasts a maximum of one year. That would be the worst of all evils but it is nevertheless a possibility that we should not completely ignore, for democracy’s sake.
If there was a national need, a dire need for someone from the military to take over, it should be an officer who does not have any ambitions. His term of office should be very time limited with parliamentary and presidential elections taking place.
MEE: Is Sisi finished, despite being supported by the international community?
AN: I am convinced, in light of the regional position towards him, especially in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, that his position is untenable. It is very weak. You also said the international community is nervous and not really standing with us.
It’s not important, because that was the case when Mubarak was in power. [Former US President Barack] Obama did not like Sisi but he was unable to do anything to exclude him. Trump might like Sisi, but maybe he cannot do anything to keep him.
Donald Trump (L) met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in New York in September (AFP)
Sisi has no vision and no real opportunities but that cursed man has very good luck and part of his good fortune is us, the Egyptian opposition. I think if we worked with half a brain or, let us say this, if the Muslim Brotherhood worked with half a brain, I think Sisi would now be in a zoo, and in particular places in a zoo. We have this creature that is half-donkey and half-horse and that creature [in Arabic] is called Sisi. It would be his place in the zoo, but next to that place would be a small hill full of monkeys. I would say that is a more proper place for him.
MEE: Do you think the rift between Saudi Arabia and Egypt is deep?
'Salman danced in Doha but he did not dance in Abu Dhabi... the real partners of King Salman are going to be in Doha and Ankara'
AN: I was in communication with Prince Salman before he became king [in January 2015]. However they disappointed us with their slow reactions. However, recently they saw the naked truth and they realised this person [Sisi] is a scammer.
This has already had an effect on relations between the Gulf states. Salman danced in Doha but he did not dance in Abu Dhabi. I think this is a very important element in assessing the situation. The real partners of Salman are going to be Doha and Ankara. If we manage to deal this triumvirate of Ankara, Saudi and Doha in a clever way then we are going to achieve a real partnership and real results with Mohammed bin Salman [the Saudi defence minister].
Before, we had a big problem which was the influence of Mohamed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, on Mohammed bin Salman. In the last three months that influence has diminished drastically. For silly reasons, such as simple disagreements between the groups behind Mohamed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman, not to mention the games that Sisi was playing with Mohamed bin Salman.
For instance, the people who published the story regarding Mohamed bin Zayed's yacht were close to bin Zayed [Mohammed bin Salman in October was reported to have purchased a $529m superyacht at the same time that Saudi Arabia announced unprecedented public spending cuts].
This has created a vacuum which Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani [the Emir of Qatar] is moving into. So Salman danced in Doha but not in Abu Dhabi. Saudi Arabia would today be just as happy if [former Egyptian Army chief of staff] Sami Anan was in charge, or indeed anyone else.
MEE: But Anan is confined to his house.
AN: It’s a villa not a house. Sisi has almost put him under house arrest. Basically he told him, if there is a funeral, do not go to the first day. You can go to the second day, not the first, because I do not want you to be surrounded by so many people. Anan is very proud of defying this order.
MEE: Where is Mohamed ElBaradei in all this?
AN: Baradei’s position is similar to Sami Anan but he is in Austria. He also has a Twitter account which Sami Anan does not have, so he blows a lot of steam through his Twitter account. I know Dr Baradei very well. You constantly needed to push him, in order to make one single step forward. I think he never had an ambition for anything. He had no ambitions in public life.
Ayman Nour on ElBaradei (pictured): "I told him his relationship with Egypt was like an arranged marriage, but my relationship with Egypt was a marriage of love" (AFP)
I think he is very respectable, principled, but does not know how to take real proper positions on things. He always told me that the difference between us is that he was the coach and I was the boxer. I told him his relationship with Egypt was like an arranged marriage, but my relationship with Egypt was a marriage of love.
However you have to understand his character. For him one of the persecutions he went through was that he was sprayed with water in front of a mosque in Giza. It would be outside the realms of his understanding to be detained in prison.
What future for Morsi?
MEE: What happens to [deposed president] Mohamed Morsi if he is released? There was a demand by the Brotherhood that if Morsi is released, he should remain president for a minute to formally hand over power to a transitional government, and therefore the results of five elections would be kept. Has this been abandoned?
AN: I think as soon as he comes out, I would be more than happy to change the registration of bills and bring him to stay in this villa [in Turkey] because to be honest, the idea of his return, despite all my love and respect for him, is very difficult.
Now we need to think about how to get him out, and how to re-instate respect for his dignity. But the prospect of putting Morsi back in power gives Sisi another lifeline. It would extend his political life. Sisi is unable to draw even people who have committed crimes against Morsi and against Egypt back into his camp. So he threatens them: “If I leave, Morsi would come back.”
Personally Morsi is not a prince of revenge, but of course no one is going to believe him. For them, Morsi is a life or death battle and unfortunately this idea is really going to set back our chances of getting rid of Sisi.
Mohamed Morsi photographed during a court appearance in April 2016 (AFP)
MEE When Sisi goes you are going to have to a transitional process which could be violent simply because people whose relatives have been tortured or killed in prison are going to seek justice. How are going to manage the stability of a country that has been put through such trauma?
AN: This scenario is very scary for the reasons you have just given. Egyptians feel strongly that they have been betrayed, duped by Sisi. The reason they have not revolted are the fears of chaos. People have to be sure of the outcome before they take another step.
That is the importance of the National Assembly. There will be many calls for vengeance and punishment. One of the ideas that would perhaps have an emotional reaction would be words like vengeance, punishment, revenge. But we have to have a managed outcome.
'I could make promises, but I would be lying... Because the crisis is larger than everyone'
I have a very real experience in this domain. It’s a personal experience. When I ran against Mubarak I was one of 10 nominees and I was the youngest of all of them. I was 40 at the time and the person I was running against was 80. And the second nominee was the same age, No'man Gumaa, and of course there were statesmen, and people from the secret service.
Officially, even in a corrupted election, I finished in second place, despite the fact I had the poorest campaign financially. I was even detained for half of it. I would go out of detention to conferences and return back to detention. Why did people have confidence in me? Because I had a very clear vision of what we would do first thing tomorrow in this new country, and I spent 10 years in parliament. I was on the budget and planning committee and gained a lot of experience in dealing with the problems that went to the heart of Egypt, which was reassuring to the regular Joe.
If I came to power, a person would go the next day and get their salary from the same department, they would still get their bread at the same bakery and there would be no real crisis that would affect them and their families. I had absolute belief in this, and I was able to convey this to the people. Twelve years on, if you asked me can I make that same promise I would say, “Unfortunately not.” I could make promises, but I would be lying. I cannot really do this, make a promise while knowing deep in my heart that it was a lie.
MEE: The leadership after Sisi would be a poisoned chalice?
AN: The crisis is so big that no single person can honestly say that they can make a positive change. Therefore I will be frank with you. When people come, different groups, inside or outside, Sisi or Brotherhood, and they tell me I am the most suitable person for this period I tell them: No, that is not the case, because there is no such a thing. Because the crisis is larger than everyone. You would have to be a lunatic to want to take over the country in these conditions. No sane person would want to undertake the responsibility for what is going on at the moment. Whoever takes that responsibility, it will be a suicide for them.
MEE: Has Sisi been thrown a lifeline by the arrival of Trump?
AN: We have no proper regional support. Sisi has taken every single penny the Gulf would have given us in aid. I am not really pessimistic about Trump as other people are, because I was not really optimistic about Obama. Trump is actually injecting the region with terrorism. He is not a defence against terrorism.
I think that if we succeed in convincing Trump of this, then the first meeting with Sisi, Trump is going to take his shoes off and hit Sisi with them. However as long as Trump thinks Sisi is a line of defence against terrorism of course he is going to continue to love him and be really impressed with him.