Egypt Independent

Interview with Defense Minister Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi (part 2)



At the end of April, Tamarod called for protests and its call spread quickly among people. On 23 June, you gave a seven-day grace period for ending the crisis. Why did you give a grace period and how did you predict the protests on 30 June?
 
All indicators from official reports, especially from the Information and Decision Support Center led by a Brotherhood member at the time, and unofficial reports showed Tamarod to be doing three to 15 times better [than the Brotherhood in mobilizing supporters]. In light of these indicators and reports, projections estimated four to six million people would participate in the 30 June protests. The real protests were a surprise with the lowest estimations putting turnout at 14 million people and the highest at 33 million.
 
As I just mentioned, all projections had predicted high levels of participation and that the protesters would stage sit-ins until the regime met their demands. Meanwhile, the regime was being obstinate and it was likely that its supporters would clash with the protesters. Perhaps what we saw during the protests on June 21 and 28 in Rabaa al-Adaweya provide evidence of what I am saying.
 
Regarding the Tamarod movement, we honestly did not speak with them until we met them on 3 July. On 23 June, we thought of giving a chance [to the regime] by proposing an initiative that incorporated the demands of the people. The highest of the demands was to put the president’s continuation in office to a referendum, a demand which we had hoped he would respond to. If the people had agreed to keep him in power [through the referendum], this would have silenced the opposition. 
 
How did the president respond after the army gave a grace period? Did he phone you?
 
Before issuing the statement on the seven-day grace period, I briefed him on its details. I met with him frequently. He was not angry about the statement but expressed reservations on the response. 
 
However, when I gave the 48-hour ultimatum on 1 July, he was angry. I told him we had 48 hours to resolve the issue because people had taken to the streets on 30 June in extremely large numbers. I was with him when the ultimatum was given on 1 July.
 
When was the last time you met before the army intervened?
 
On 2 July. I was trying to resolve the crisis until the last minute.
 
Did you meet him after 3 July?
 
No.
 
One day before the former president delivered his speech at the Conference Center, Khairat al-Shater, deputy supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood , asked to meet you. What happened in this meeting?
 
I remember that Saad al-Katatny phoned me and said that he and Shater wanted to meet me. I met them on 25 June and listened to them. Shater spoke for 45 minutes, and he warned of terrorist attacks and violence by Islamist groups that neither he nor the Brotherhood would be able to control. He said they were in Sinai and the Nile valley. He also said that he did not know those of them who had come from Arab countries. He also kept pointing his finger like he was pulling a gun trigger.  
 
Was he giving his warning to the army or to the people?
 
I do not know, but he said that if the president left his position, those groups would go about striking and killing and that nobody would be able to control them. There would be intense fighting, he said. He said they [the Brotherhood] were being subjected to great pressures and that certain people had made the president fail. He also said that the Armed Forces’ position towards the Brotherhood had increased tensions and caused them to lose control over the Brotherhood’s bases and its Islamist members. He said the latter possessed weapons smuggled from Libya and across the borders.
 
I know that your response was violent in that stormy meeting.
 
What he said provoked me like never before in my life because it came across as arrogant and a show of force. I blew up, saying, “What do you want? You devastated the country and did harm to religion.”
 
“Is it either we accept this or you kill us? Is it either you rule or kill us?”
 
He then fell into silence. I believe he realized how we [the military] were going to respond.
 
Katatny then asked me what the solution was and I said, “Resolve your problems with the judiciary, the church, Al-Azhar, the media, political powers and public opinion.”
 
Before the president delivered his speech at the Conference Center on Wednesday 26 June, did you sit with him and discuss the speech?
 
Yes, we sat together from 11 AM to 1 PM on that day. He [Morsy] said, “Katatny will come and we will do everything you say.” There were several solutions, and if he had found a way to satisfy the people, there could have been a reasonable way out of the crisis.
 
Why were you present when the president delivered his speech, even though the event seemed to have a partisan rather than national nature? And why were you smiling while he was delivering his speech?
 
I was there because when I am asked to solve a crisis, I do not say no. As for the smile, it was one of surprise because Katatny had told me before we entered the conference hall that everything I had recommended was going to be done, but everything that Morsy said was the opposite of what he agreed on with me and Katatny. The exception was the apology he made at the beginning of the speech.
 
I smiled because he submitted to the orders of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership without considering the interests of the state. He relied on advisers who caused him to make mistakes and prepare a speech that did not suit a president. He could have been sued because of the speech, which is what happened in the days following the speech.
 
“They [the Brotherhood] are already threatening the people,” I thought to myself.
 
Is it true that there was a list of army leaderships and public figures that Morsy was going to detain after the speech?
 
I want to leave this matter to fact-finding and investigation committees, but based on the position he was in at the time, he could not have done that. There was a major crisis and they [the Brotherhood] did not know how to resolve it. I believe they were resigned to letting the crisis take them whichever way, which is a sign of desperation.
 
When did you think there was no hope?
 
After the speech, it was clear that the Brotherhood saw the situation differently. I believed the [initial] protests being staged around that time did not show the reality of the situation to them well. I realized that 30 June would be the decisive moment [in which the Brotherhood understood the extent their popularity had eroded].
 
How did you spend the 30 June and why did you postpone the issuing of the Armed Forces statement to the following day–the 1 July–after the seven-day grace period had expired? 
 
On 30 June, my concern was to follow up on the developments on the ground and to assess the conclusions reached before intervention. My concern was to prepare for intervention in order to protect citizens and public property if any party attempted to undermine security and threaten citizens and buildings.
 
On 30 June, I watched what happened like everybody, and I expected large crowds to pour onto the streets. What happened was amazing and a watershed moment Egypt’s history.
 
Egyptians took to the streets because they feared for their moderate [Islam and religion] and the future. They did not feel that the country was theirs, and this is what triggered the 30 June protests. Tens of millions of people took to the streets and made the Armed Forces face its historic responsibility of achieving the people’s will again. Simple people took to the streets, as well as young people, members of the elite and families. It was as though they were abandoning danger and fleeing to safety. They were abandoning their [unstable] reality for a secure Egyptian state, a new aspired reality. The people took to the streets to say “no we will not live this way.” They abandoned a reality they feared for a future they hoped for. Egyptians took to the streets everywhere. There were places where there were rallies but were not filmed from the air.
 
I would like to tell Islamist to beware when dealing with Egyptians, for you treated Egyptians as though you were good and they were bad, as though you were the survivors and they were the ones who will die, as though you were the believers and they the disbelievers. This is sheer arrogance.
Unprecedented crowds took to the streets and squares, yet we still have those who claim the protesters numbered only 120,000.
 
It was the former president who alleged so. When did he say so?
 
On 1 July, he said the number of protesters was 120,000. I told him that I would bring him CDs with the aerial footage of the protests.
 
Why did you renew the grace period on 1 July for another 48 hours?
 
I saw grave dangers and thought that any resolution was better [than army intervention].
 
When did you notify the former president of the second grace period?
 
I read the statement out to him as we entered the meeting with him. Someone preparing to launch a coup would not speak of it with anyone [before he launched it], would he?
 
How did you spend the night before the 3 July? What were you thinking to yourself? Did you expect the public response that welcomed the statement?
 
The only matter that preoccupied us [the military] during that period was how to achieve national will with the least amount of damage to the capacities of the Egyptian state. This prompted us to review and scrutinize all plans and cover all possible scenarios.
 
I enjoyed peace of mind, because we do not covet power or have a certain [political] interest. We were seeking to achieve popular will. We only feared God and his Prophet.
 
I was also sure of the popular support for the practices of the Brotherhood eroded their popular base. Still, I was hoping the standoff would be resolved and I had three people close to the former president tell him that the way out of the crisis was to hold a referendum on whether he should continue even though the public might not accept that. But it seemed they thought the army feared confrontation and that it will eventually step back at a certain point.
 
How did you prepare for the announcement that the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court would manage the country and the rest of the situation when you read out the statement?
 
I thought religious institutions such as Al-Azhar and the church had to be present because they are responsible for society. We also invited Mohamed ElBaradei, representatives of women, Tamarod, Nour Party and the judiciary, as well as the Freedom and Justice Party, but they did not respond to the invitation.
 
The statement reflected popular demands for early presidential elections under the auspices of a neutral government. The elections would be held after a limited transitional period during which the Constitution would be amended and the people’s economic and security demands met. The image of all those [various religious leaders, political leaders, and representatives] clearly reflected the alliance of national powers to achieve the will of the people.
 
Did you inform the U.S. of the statement before reading it out?
 
I said clearly that we did not notify, cooperate, coordinate or take permission from anyone. The incidents and the statement are an internal Egyptian affair. No country, no matter what the relations are, has the right to interfere in Egyptian affairs. Also, the statement was meant to achieve popular will agreed on by all segments of society and was an expression of Egyptians’ desires that brought them to the streets for the big revolutions in January 2011 and June 2013. These demands included freedom of opinion, expression and creed, as well as freedom from subordination to any foreign powers.
 
Our foreign relations are based on mutual interest and respect as well as non-acceptance of interference in internal affairs and attempts to change decisions made in national interest.
 
How did you spend the night after reading out the 3 July statement?
 
I read the statement and then went to my mother’s place.
 
What did she say to you?
 
My mother is at an age where she cannot follow what is going on, but I am strongly attached to her. She is a genuine Egyptian woman in every sense of the word. She raised me to rely on God and accept destiny.
 
What prayers did she make for you?
 
(His eyes swelling with tears) She said, “May God protect you from all evils.”
 
How did your family respond?
 
They knew that this marked the beginning of hardship.
 
How many children do you have?
 
Four. A girl and three boys.
 
Do you have grandchildren?
 
I have four, thank God. The eldest is a four-year old girl.
 
After the 3 July statement, a constitutional declaration was issued that discussed a roadmap for the second transitional period beginning with amending the constitution and then electing a parliament and president. Was this order of events a lesson learned from the first transitional period?
 
There are lots of lessons that we learned from the first transitional period, the first of which is that the Armed Forces should not be at the forefront [of the transition] and that power has to remain in the hands of a civil government and president. Second, there are problems [which must be addressed] that spark dissatisfaction among the populace, such as failing to amend the Constitution. We also learned that the parliamentary and presidential elections should follow the amendment of the Constitution with nomination being open to everyone.
 
I want to say that what the people did as well as what we did was only a response. They [the Brotherhood] were making the initial actions, and the people and the army were responding. If they had properly assessed the situation, we would not have reached this point. It would have been better for them to accept advice and acknowledge their mistakes. 
 
Keeping the country out of danger is a national duty and a religious responsibility. Calls to bring down the police and the army will lead to years of instability and result in the deaths of many. Who will take responsibility for this before God?
 
You addressed the people on 24 July and asked them to take to the streets two days later in order to authorize you, the army and the police to face potential violence and terrorism. How did you think of this?
 
Based on studies, science and understanding, you have to realize that the intellectual paradigm governing the religious bloc would [eventually] lead them to resort to violence because they think they are right. I expected escalation. We are indeed seeing people who possess weapons and bomb places. We arrest armed militants on a daily basis. Imagine if the police had been broken and had not received that morale boost from the people? Reconciliation between the people and the police was a divine miracle.
 
When you were addressing the people, did you really believe they would respond?
 
I did not doubt that they would, not even for a second. I was sure they were going to take to the streets. 
 
In your address, you said, "This is the first time I ask something of you."
 
I feel a certain closeness with Egyptians. We both feel it.
 
Were you worried when you went to sleep that night?
 
No.
 
Was the only goal of the rallying call to get the authorization to face potential breakouts of violence and terrorism?
 
The goal was not this as much as it was to emphasize to the world how much the people want change, especially after some started to seek support from foreign powers on the pretext that what happened was a military coup.
 
I placed my trust in Egyptians based on the belief that change would satisfy the people and achieve the ambitions and goals of the revolution: bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity. The widespread, popular response to my call burdened me and my colleagues with further responsibility to achieve the ambitions and dreams of Egyptians. The Egyptian people placed their trust in us, and God and history will hold us accountable for it.
 
Did you expect the numbers to be that big?
 
Frankly, I expected more people, and I even said, “This is not the number I expected to take to the streets." 
 
You say that even though tens of millions took to the streets in an unprecedented way?
 
To be frank, yes. I always strive for the highest levels of perfection. Still, I was very happy until the Nasr City clashes broke out on 27 July.
 
The decision to confront attempts to storm the Republican Guards House was quick, while the decision to disperse the Rabaa al-Adaweya and Nahda sit-ins was delayed. Why is that? And were your estimations of the casualties close to the real tolls?
 
First, you cannot compare the Republican Guards House incidents with the dispersal of these two sit-ins. In the case of the Republican Guards House, there was an attempt to storm a military establishment using force. This placed army forces in a position of self-defense and the response had to be swift. This was confirmed by the incident reports. There were untrained people shooting, which caused unintended losses. People were flocking to the place where the former president was kept– which is also a military zone– and they were attempting to break into it and light fires. The same day, we transferred him [Morsy] to another location.
 
As for the decision to disperse the Rabaa al-Adaweya and Nahda sit-ins, the state was keen to give a appeasement a chance through political means and took into consideration the fact that it was Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr. Time was also given for examining and planning in order to avoid losses on both two sides after it had been confirmed that the two sit-ins were armed.
 
After 48 days, not hours, and several warnings, security bodies decided to implement the judicial order to break the two protests in conformance with international standards. Both sides incurred losses as a result of the protesters’ use of weapons.
 
Regarding the numbers of victims, there were several reports, and there are considerable discrepancies between official reports and what other sources found. It is best to wait for the results of fact-finding committees and investigations.
 
How did you feel after hundreds of people died during the dispersal of the sit-ins?
 
First, all national institutions and state officials are keen not to spill Egyptian blood. Regrettably, blood is being spilled due to conflicts over power and for the interests of a select group [the Brotherhood]. They use this blood to feed the impression that they are the victims in order to win the support of foreign powers to threaten the Egyptian state. Of course, the Egyptian state is keen on restoring security and stability and preserving lives, but it will not let go of security for the sake of a group that does not value its country and spills the blood of its followers.
 
The dispersals came after the state waited 48 days. The continuation of those sit-ins would have had catastrophic repercussions for national interests. The sit-ins infringed on the freedom of the residents living in those areas, especially after the sit-ins armed themselves and started to carry out criminal activities against the residents. They also had negative impacts on the environment, public health, transportation and the economy. They also threatened societal peace.
 
The sit-ins became all the more threatening when they provided a platform for empowerment from foreign powers, threatening the Egyptian state and its integrity. This would have paved the way for reproducing the current situation in Syria.
We feared there would be more losses and the other side was waging a mental war against us. We asked them to end the sit-ins, but they did not want to listen or think.
 
What would have happened if the two sit-ins had not been dismantled?
 
The country would have begun to disintegrate.
 
Could Egypt be on the verge of civil war again like it was toward the end of Morsy’s rule?
 
This cannot happen. We intervened to protect the country at the request of the people. To those who call for putting the roadmap to a referendum, I say, we are already past this and working to achieve the people's demands.
 
Did you expect to get the support of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Jordan?
 
We appreciate their support, and Egyptians will not forget that. Frankly, their support was beyond expectations.
 
Edited translation from Al-Masry Al-Youm