Egyptian editor: Israel-peace treaty will likely be revised

The Media Line interviews Egypt Daily News editor on Egyptian role in peace process, controlling Gaza border, future of Israel-Egypt relations.

Tahrir is packed (R) 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Tahrir is packed (R) 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Rania Al-Malki is chief editor of the Daily News Egypt. She spoke with The Media Line prior to the Military Council’s announcement of constitutional changes.
TML: Rania, a military council is in charge of Egypt. Some argue that we’re seeing a military coup rather than a popular revolution. How would you characterize what has happened in Egypt?
Al-Malki: It’s definitely a popular revolution. It’s not a military coup because it started with millions of people. First hundreds; then thousands; then millions of people out in the streets until they took complete control of Tahrir Square. Afterward, the military stepped in to basically protect the nation and the people of Egypt. So the military only made an appearance after the people toppled Mubarak.
TML: To what do you attribute President Hosni Mubarak’s regime’s toppling?
Al-Malki: There is a slew of issues there that have been plaguing Egyptian society for many years, mainly the widespread corruption and the fact that all the wealth was concentrated in a very small minority that benefited the most from the economic development of the past few years. Food prices were getting high. People were feeling like their dignity was not respected. There were so many human rights issues that people have been talking about in the more open media situation we’ve had in the past five years so the feeling was that there is very little respect for Egyptian citizens by other Egyptian citizens – in particular the police, which has incredible powers. The emergency law which gave the police the power led to the ultimate anger [of the people]. The triggers were three main things: First, the parliamentary elections which were rigged like no other parliamentary elections were ever rigged before. This took place in November. And then of course there’s what happened in Tunis. Obviously, we can’t ignore the fact that Egyptians were seeing the toppling of another dictator just weeks before. And before that, there was the issue with Khaled Said, the young man who was beaten to death in Alexandria. That particular case gained so much ground and so much sympathy from the public as a whole. From that point on, it seemed that we were reaching a boiling point. Then came the elections; then came Tunis; and that was it. That's why on January 25th, when the young Facebook activists were calling for people to come out, they never expected people to really come out and join them. But then with all that was happening so imminently, people just decided, “You know what? We're not going to take it anymore.” And they went to the streets and voiced their objections.
TML: How is what is happening in Libya being seen by the Egyptians at the moment and how is it affecting Egypt?
Al-Malki: People are horrified at what we're hearing. A lot of people have started collecting donations to help the people who have been injured in the air raids. We've been hearing all different accounts because there is a complete media blackout inside Libya so it's very difficult to confirm the accounts. But it does seem from what we're hearing from some people who are still in Libya that the crackdown on protestors is more brutal than anything we've ever heard of before. The Egyptian people are very sympathetic to what is happening in Libya. Some have organized caravans -- aid caravans -- and collected hundreds of thousands of pounds in supplies to send over there. It's affecting Egypt and I think the effect of what is happening there is going to show in the next few weeks because 1.5 million Egyptians work in Libya and they are now returning. That's going to be a huge problem because many of the families depend completely for support on the family member who worked in Libya.
TML: Have any of them come back? Have any of them returned?
Al-Malki: Yes.
TML: Have you had access to them to find out what's happening?
Al-Malki: We haven't had access yet. There are reports we are working on now so I still have to look at them so I can't tell you any concrete information or firsthand reports on what people have been saying. But I heard on the BBC radio for example, people interviewed on the border between Egypt and Libya who are reporting horrendous things happening there. People with guns and cars are said to be just shooting at groups that are congregating in public. Our own reporters are still collecting their data and collecting their accounts.
TML: Many in the United States are concerned that quick elections will favor the Muslim Brotherhood. Is this the case?

Al-Malki: Well, we're not so sure. The fear is not just for Egyptians that the Muslim Brotherhood is going to rise, but that the former National Democratic Party is going to rise. What political analysts are looking at now is whether it's going to be a competition between the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood. And certainly, if we have free and fair elections, the two of them are the most organized parties and the most well-trained and experienced in the election process. At the same time, the balance of power is not the same. Everything has changed completely and a lot of the people are not grouping.
The liberal parties are gaining traction and attention and are trying to organize themselves. It's hard to predict what will happen. It's very likely the Muslim Brotherhood is going to have a strong showing in parliament and it's also very likely that the former ruling party, NDP, is going to have a strong showing. We still don't know what the state of the NDP is going to be. Some people are calling for the dissolution of that party altogether. It's all about opening up to the media and also all related to the constitutional amendments that have not been announced yet. I think it's more important for us, for Egyptian society, to get used to this new atmosphere of democratic elections because it's something we're not used to.
Most people who are even educated, informed and are quite politicized have never even voted in elections before. So this kind of exercise is important and at the end of the day, if this parliament is not reflecting the people's demands, I'm sure according to the new constitutional amendments, it will be possible for the people to vote no-confidence and force it from power. So it is definitely a possibility that the Brotherhood or former NDP will take over the parliament -- but if that happens, it's not the end of the world.
TML: Who are behind the new political parties that are popping up and are they going to be part of the election process?
Al-Malki: Well, the newest political party that was just recently given a license is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood with a very moderate message. It's called the Al-Wifaq party and it's been trying to get a license for 15 years. It was only just approved a week ago. This is officially the newest party. Until now, we still had an old law that makes it impossible to set up a political party. We used to have a political party committee that was made up of members of the ruling party that vetoed or gave a license to any party that wanted to be set up. Now I don't know what's going to happen with that law but it needs to change for new parties to be set up. But there were existing parties before like the Democratic Front Party that's a very liberal party but it wasn't a popular party in any way, shape or form. Not a lot of people knew anything about it but that was because the entire atmosphere in Egypt was very apolitical. But now I'm assuming the Democratic Front Party is going to start gaining ground.
A youth oriented party is going to pop up at some point in the next few months, perhaps headed by someone called Amr Hamzawy. I'm not saying it has happened, but I've been hearing that he's going to be heading up a party. He's a very well-respected political analyst with the Carnegie Endowment. Everything is very up in the air and there's always talk about new parties but at the same time, a lot of these old parties are worried -- and rightly so -- that if we have elections too soon, they are going to lose out. In my opinion, that's just part of the process. There has to be a transition and that transition is going to take time.
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TML: Does the world need to worry about the Islam-ization of Egypt?
Al-Malki: No. I don't think so at all. Even the Muslim Brotherhood is thinking of setting up a new party called the Freedom and Justice Party.
It's very clear that they are changing their tone. They want to be more immersed in the political mosaic in Egypt and they feel this is a way to get more immersed. Everyone knows who they are. It’s not going to be a secret that it’s part of the Muslim Brotherhood. It's going to be a battle for the polls I guess. People will go and vote for what they believe in the most.
TML: Western nations are greatly concerned whether or not the new regime in Egypt will honor the 1979 treaty with Israel. The leader of the Muslim Brotherhood went on record saying this treaty needs to be revised at best, or scrapped at worst. What's your take?

Al-Malki: I think not only the Muslim Brotherhood feels that way but I think the leftists and socialists groups are even more militant against the Camp David Accords and against the treaty with Israel than the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, one of the first communiqués by the army stated clearly and unequivocally that Egypt will honor all its treaties and all its international covenants that it has signed up to. At the end of the day, it's the army. The fact that a lot of political powers in society that reflect a lot of people's views that are asking for the treaty to be revised, it's not something we shouldn't have the right to do. There are certain elements in that treaty that perhaps do need to be revised and there's nothing wrong with that. But I don't think it would ever lead to a conflict with Israel at all. That's partly because the army has decided there's not going to be that type of conflict and partly because the Egyptian people in general don't have a big problem with having a treaty with Israel. They just have a problem with certain aspects of how that has affected our policies abroad.
TML: Egypt has played a major role between the Israelis and Palestinians in the past. In this transition period, they're going to take a back seat. How do you think that will develop in the future?

Al-Malki: I'm not so sure Egypt will take a backseat in the transition period. Obviously, we will have to tidy up our own house before we can help other outside organizations get back together and start pushing for the peace process. But I think the role of Egypt on that front is going to continue as it was. The thing is, I don't think it was very successful before. I don't think Egypt had the kind of leverage it was touted to have, unfortunately. We were paying a lot of lip service to a lot of people on all sides, but in terms of getting anything done, I think Egyptian diplomacy has failed. What proves that is that until now there is no reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. There are still the same issues that have existed over the past years. Maybe taking a backseat could help the situation, but it won't make it worse. It was bad enough already and I don't think our intervention was helpful with anyone.
TML: What about Gaza's reliance on Egypt and the opening and closing of its doors and borders?
Al-Malki: There is a very strong public opinion issue here. The public opinion in general is for helping the people of Gaza who have been under siege for over four years now. The opening of the borders is something that used to happen. It used to happen very intermittently and the Palestinians were treated very badly on the borders. I'm hoping this mood is going to change and I'm hoping there will be more openness and cooperation and help given to the people in Gaza. The idea of opening the borders all the time, completely, I don't think is going to happen and I don't think it's what the Egyptian people want. But I think the Egyptian people in general want to feel we're helping the people who are desperately surviving during this Israeli siege. It's not going to be a complete opening up of the borders but there's going to be a loosening up of the situation there.
TML: Do you think that United States diplomacy will be welcome in Egypt?

Al-Malki: What will be welcome is more economic exchange. Any political intervention on issues of sovereignty are never going to be welcome here. I think people would very much welcome economic cooperation, the idea of exchanges of all kinds. But in terms of political intervention, I think it's very clear and very important for most of the people who started the revolution, the young people, to disassociate themselves from any foreign entity whatsoever. That's paramount to the reason why the initial group gained a lot of trust and a lot of backing by the entire society afterward. We knew these young people were going out on their own: because of their own initiatives, their own love for their country, and not because they are playing out any foreign agenda.
So far, I was very happy and heartened by President Obama's speech after President Mubarak stepped down. It's wonderful to get these kind of kudos from the biggest superpower, the United States. But the word “intervention” is so negative and people just don't want to hear it, don't want to accept it. It also undermines the renewed feeling of national pride and people power that we have.
It kind of tarnishes that very pure kind of feeling of control of your fate and taking control of your country. I think economically it would be very much appreciated that we would continue having a good economic relationship with the United States but I'm not sure politically. Of course, the U.S. used to give Mubarak a lot of military aid but at the end of the day, this also helped the Egyptian people because the military is very strong and it is in the military's favor that it keeps good relationships with the US I think people in general are aware of that relationship and have no problem with it as long as it's not outspoken intervention into national issues.
TML: Rania, you were speaking earlier about people power. What was the women's role in the demonstrations and the toppling of the government?
Al-Malki: I can't say that there was a separate women's role – a role separate from men. It wasn't like that. If you went to Tahrir Square, you would have seen a slice of life, everyone doing everything. It was like the ‘People's Republic of Tahrir Square.’ They participated.
TML: There have been serious issues in dealing with women's rights in Egypt. Do you think these issues will take a backseat at the moment?
Al-Malki: At the moment yes. Everyone is concerned with much bigger issues at the moment because we are now concerned about how the constitutional amendments will play out -- what they are going to look like -- much bigger political issues. But in a few weeks, everything is going to go back to normal. Women's groups that have been active for years are going to go back to what they have been doing. Society has not changed 180 degrees because Mubarak has stepped down. There have been major political changes but at the same time, many things haven't changed yet. It's the same people, the same institutions; so I don't think it would be right to talk about different groups of society or sectors or their issues in society taking a backseat because the details haven't changed -- just the big picture has changed.
TML: Have you, as a woman editor, seen any censorship in any way in your reporting?
Al-Malki: Well before the revolution, yes, of course. It was very difficult to say different things, naturally. Censorship was not direct. It was very indirect and it was more intimidation that lead to a certain degree of self-censorship even though I always boasted about having a lot of freedom to publish all kinds of things. But there were certain areas I couldn't write about.
TML: Such as?
Al-Malki: Like criticize a person or the president or his family. Even though some Arabic newspapers really used to push the envelope at their own risk, a lot of them would be taken to court or things like that. But there was no way we could report on a lot of the corruption allegations against people in power and people very close to the president. You couldn't report a word about the army. That was the biggest taboo.
TML: Has that changed in the last few weeks?
Al-Malki: Of course. We are talking about the army every day. The military council is now ruling the country. Just a few weeks ago, three members of the military council appeared for the first time on a prime-time television program and the host of the show was asking them questions about all kinds of things. They were basically being grilled live on-air for everyone to see. The threshold has shifted completely and it's never going to go back to how it was before. The rules have not changed. The laws haven't changed but for sure we are going to be working towards that, toward changing the laws that were used so badly before.
TML: Rania Al-Malki, thank you.