Dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim recently returned to Egypt from exile. Washington Post senior associate editor Lally Weymouth talked with him in Cairo. Excerpts follow:
L.W.: How many years have you been out of the country?
SEI: Four years.
L.W.: You weren’t allowed to come back to Egypt or you would have been arrested?
SEI: Yes, there were about 28 cases against me [brought by the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak]. This time when I landed, there were thousands of people waiting for me. I have dominated the news. … This bodes ill for the future of democracy in this country.
L.W.: Because the other liberal forces are in disarray?
L.W.: Are the Salafis as numerous as the Muslim Brotherhood?
SEI: No, but they are more vehement.
L.W.: More Islamist?
SEI: They claim to be. They cut off this guy’s ear [a Copt]. They have disrupted transportation [by sitting on railroad tracks] in Qena. That’s where I became very alarmed. … Neutral people [could get] the idea that this is the bandwagon, and they should jump on it.
L.W.: So the Muslim Brotherhood could win the upcoming parliamentary elections?
SEI: We’ve always known the Muslim Brothers could command between 20 and 25 percent of the popular vote. With more freedom, they probably can raise this to 30 percent.
L.W.: What did [the regime] do to you in prison?
SEI: They destroyed my nervous system. I have had four surgeries. I came out of prison paralyzed. … It took me three years to be able to walk.
L.W.: There doesn’t seem to be an obvious strong secular leader here.
SEI: There are several who could be. One is Judge [Hesham] El-Bastawisi. I supported him because he stood up to Mubarak in the last election when Mubarak wanted him to sign as a judge to vindicate the integrity of the election, but there was none.
L.W.: How will the party of Egypt’s leading businessman, Naguib Sawiris, do? Would you join it?
SEI: I would explore it—it is liberal, secular, and pluralistic.
L.W.: Sawiris seems very worried about the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power.
SEI: He should be. Everybody should worry but not panic.
L.W.: Do you think that if you and Sawiris join forces you could get a lot of votes?
SEI: If we can work together, yes. I am taking a few more days to explore things.
L.W.: Were you surprised by the revolution?
SEI: I was surprised [by] how quickly it came. I had organized demonstrations for years, but it was always 2,000, 3,000 people. … It was technology—when 80,000 youngsters signed up on Facebook [to say] that they would show up—
When the Mubarak government saw the protesters, they cut the Internet. It backfired. … [W]hen parents couldn’t reach their children by phone, they went down to Tahrir Square to look for them. The number of demonstrators increased, and they stayed.
L.W.: Do you have friends in the army?
SEI: Of course. … It is not in the tradition of the Egyptian army to fire on citizens. They have only one mission, and that is to defend the border.
L.W.: The army decided to get rid of Mubarak, right?
SEI: The Egyptian chief of staff, on orders from the White House, was escalating the pressure. President [Barack] Obama’s advisers, who are good friends—Samantha Power and Michael McFaul—asked me to come [to Washington]. They relied on me as a source. … After Mubarak’s second speech, Obama became convinced [that Mubarak had to go].
L.W.: When Mubarak said he would not leave?
SEI: He just dragged his feet as if staying when everyone had expected him to be leaving. … That is when Obama realized why Egyptians do not trust Mubarak. The White House thought that no one would go back on a promise.
L.W.: But to whom did Mubarak make this promise?
SEI: An adviser to Mubarak made this promise to an adviser of the National Security Council.
L.W.: How will the Egyptian relationship with the U.S. be going forward?
SEI: The same.
L.W.: People in Washington are worried.
SEI: In the square—were there any anti-American slogans? Any anti-Israeli slogans? No. They are focused on the domestic situation. As long as America supports the process … they will get a lot of points with everybody. … I think if the Muslim Brothers gain overwhelming support, you should be concerned about that because of their connection to Hezbollah, to Iran, and their built-in hostility toward Israel.
L.W.: Do you think Egypt’s treaty with Israel will stay as is?
SEI: If I were president I would respect all prior agreements.
L.W.: Aren’t the Egyptians putting Israel in a real corner with this Hamas-Fatah deal?
SEI: I am seeing it as Hamas [wanting] legitimacy. You don’t change overnight, but Hamas’ anti-Israeli rhetoric has cooled off. More important, their military operations have decreased.
L.W.: They are still hitting Israeli towns with rockets.
SEI: In the Middle East you look at the process. Their agreement with the PLO is partly to get back into the negotiation process and to do so before September.
L.W.: You are referring to the Palestinian Authority’s plan to ask for recognition of a Palestinian state at the U.N. General Assembly?
SEI: Right. It would not be as strong if you had a faction that is casting doubt. So Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and President Mahmoud Abbas seem to have realized that they need to get their act together.
L.W.: Do you have to decide now [whether] to run?
SEI: I am not going to decide now. I have to consult with my daughters. I am 72 years old and have been calling for the younger generation to take over.