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EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Egyptian opposition leader Ayman Nour

The Sisi leaks are 100 percent genuine, Saudi could bring Egypt back together and Mohamed Morsi is not a 'bad guy' but was the wrong man for the moment, Ayman Nour tells MEE
Ayman Nour registers to run in Egypt's presidential elections in April 2012 (AFP)

In an wide-ranging interview with Middle East Eye, Ayman Nour, a leading and influential member of the liberal Egyptian opposition since the Hosni Mubarak era, talks about the night he fled his country, hours after a call from then-Defence Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. 

Nour says the recent leaked tapes of Egyptian President Sisi and his officials was an inside job and also predicts that, while Saudi Arabia may pledge funds publicly at this weekend's Sharm el-Sheikh economic conference, the money will gradually dry up.

MEE: What role could Saudi Arabia play in healing Egypt’s wounds?

Ayman Nour: Saudi has three characteristics of a regional leader. It’s a central country and an important pillar for Sisi. He derived his legitimacy from three sources - the fear that people had of the Brotherhood, both inside and outside Egypt; and this is due to the mistakes that the Brotherhood committed, which took bigger shape. The second source of Sisi’s legitimacy was that people thought he would bring about regional reconciliation, unlike Morsi, and that this could have a good impact economically, and on development, and on the social level; the third point was that they thought he could restore stability and the good role of the state. After 19 months, Sisi has shown he cannot achieve any of those points, except one: regional reconciliation with the Saudis and Emiratis. If Saudis start to play a neutral role, Sisi loses the only advantage he has.

Our ambition should be bigger than this. We should always encourage Saudi Arabia to help Egypt. But not to help Sisi. If the Saudi stance changed from supporting Sisi, the situation would be changed completely, because if Saudi removed its hands fully, Sisi could not continue for six months.

The importance of the Saudi role is threefold: first, it is to play the role of an honest mediator, who is trusted by all sides, in the absence of all others. I was the only person in the opposition who was happy that relations between Egypt and Qatar are now better because it could allow Qatar to be an honest mediator. This is an illusion of course and this reconciliation will collapse. So the Saudis are the only ones left and they have experience of tackling such issues, especially they were part of creating this problem. There is a proverb in Egypt, which says the person who brings evil is the only person who can get rid of it.

But there are two other points - America is coming late into this game. All the people who are pro-democracy pay the price of this delay. The Americans are like the person who is waiting to catch the train but who misses it. So he buys a car to reach the train and then he discovers that the train is faster than the car. So he decides to buy a plane. But if he had actually been on time, he would have saved a lot of time and effort and money and this is what happened during the reign of Mubarak and now.

The European Union on the other hand has faster reactions, but they always fail to act. I was arrested five times in my life. Last time, it was for four and a half years and my health was very bad in prison and I always used to say that if I died inside the jail, there would be a statement from the European Union before I actually die. The Americans would come to mourn on the 40th day of my death. Neither of them played a vital role at the right time hence the importance of the Saudi role in the region.

MEE: Will Saudi Arabia cut money to Sisi or put conditions on further payments?

AN:  It will happen, but they take their time. 

MEE: Are the tapes of the secretly recorded conversations in Sisi’s office genuine?

AN: Yes. 100 percent. I know their voices. This is the way they talk and the level of the conversation, unfortunately, and this is why we are against them. They do not know their limits. These are 100 percent true leaks. The Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries know this however they have to take their time. They do not want to react now.

MEE: They must be angry.

AN:  I think they are. It’s a grave insult. I have always been and am still against withdrawing investments from Egypt, but there should be rules.

MEE: The money was going straight into the army’s bank accounts.

AN: This is a catastrophe.

MEE: In the recorded conversations, Sisi and Kamil Abbas were contemptuous. They were saying: We are Egypt. They were talking like pharaohs.

AN: The tapes are genuine. I spent 10 years in the parliament and my main cause was to have monitoring and transparency on the budget of the military. That was the most important thing for me for ten years and I was a member of the committee for the constitution. I resigned on this point, because there was no monitoring of the army budget. They give you one number whose source is not very clear. So I understood what was going on in the army. We have two states. The state of Egypt and the state of the army. Although the logic should be that the army is part of the executive authority, we have always had a pharoah, a semi-god and you have a god that is called the military state. 

MEE: Do you think there are generals within the army who can see what is going on and who think that Sisi is leading the country in the wrong direction?

AN: Inside the military, there are different opinions. The leaks now are from people inside the military. Their names are not important. The secret recording of conversations in Sisi’s office is an inside job. That is for sure. Only important people in the military can actually do that, and at the right time, the military could sacrifice Sisi. I personally think that we could go into reconciliation in the presence of Sisi. I do not find that a problem.

Sisi is like the enemy you must negotiate with in order to have peace and this is the peace that will provide obligations and rules. To have peace with other forces will not be real and will collapse. So if we want peace, we should not put up infantile obstacles. Yes, there are forces into the military, but we are doing this to prevent more killings in the future.

MEE: What is your plan for reconciliation in Egypt?

AN: I am a liberal and I don’t have extremist solutions and such solutions are moderate ones. However there are facts that we should all respect. First, there have been crimes which have not been investigated. The absence of justice is the most important factor in creating instability. Thousands of people killed in Egypt, justice is a very important part of the solution. However, this needs transitional justice and needs a fact commission to investigate this. You cannot be judged unless you have clear reasons to convict people.

Definitely, the Sisi regime is complicit in such crimes. The regime is responsible, but you cannot put a regime in jail. You can put individuals in jail and, if you do that, it should be based on real evidence, and convictions. I personally feel ashamed that there has not been even one investigation that convicts any person in this situation. Therefore, talking about reconciliation should not be about one person, or people. It should be about principles, a group of principles that the January revolution has adopted. South Africa established the principles that the people who are part of the crisis should know that they are part of the solution. This applies to both sides. Reconciliation should be about and between institutions. We need to reorganise the relations between civil society and the military. This crisis is 67 years old and this should be confronted and it’s an essential for any reconciliation. You need an army for Egypt, but we do not want Egypt to be for the army. There is a big difference between the two.

MEE: Can Sisi be part of this reconciliation or does he have to go first?

AN: The reconciliation should start initially between the forces of the January revolution itself, the secular and Islamic forces. When this reconciliation takes place, there should be a national statement. It would be like a new Magna Carta, in which there will be guarantees for the role of the state in the future, to ensure democracy, not only competitive democracy, at least for the first stage. These guarantees will allow all the elements of the opposition to unite - the liberals, the leftists, revolutionary movements, moderate Islamists, Islamists, the Brotherhood. The reconciliation should gather all these in one. This would help the role of Saudi, or any other party that is serious about the reconciliation, to be able to cooperate and dialogue, without embarrassing the previous stances.

MEE: This is before anyone is released from prison?

AN: Yes at the moment. The process I am referring to now is limited to the revolutionary forces themselves and this is what we are working on right now. The next level of the reconciliation should be between the revolution and the institutions of the state. First of all the military, judiciary system, religious institutions both Christian and Muslim as well as the media. This part of the reconciliation is the most important and the role of Sisi is not necessarily to have a part in it. However, there should be sponsorship of it, so that it can take place. Sisi will not accept this to happen unless there was regional pressure from strong forces. So he would accept that he is not the one calling for this reconciliation, because if he called for it, nobody would answer it. It should be between the revolution and the institutions. This will solve a part of the problems that you have mentioned, like the arrested, the people killed, the media, and the religious influence which is a big problem which cleaved Egyptian society in two.

We have established a council and we will call for an important conference. This will have delegates from Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria. The Arab committee to defend the revolutions and democracies. The chairman of the committee is Dr Mohammed Moncef Marzouki, the previous president of Tunisia. I will be the vice president, also Tawakkol Karman from Yemen and Ahmed Taman, the prime minister of the Syrian government. We have established this committee in Tunisia in a short time and they have had a couple of workshops here in Istanbul, but then they will hold a big conference to evaluate the situation in the countries that have experienced the Arab Spring in the presence of Marzouki and a number of intellectuals.

MEE: The youth carrying the protests on the streets, whether they are secular students or Brotherhood, are becoming more revolutionary and there is a debate within the Brotherhood about becoming a revolutionary rather than reformist organisation. They are still committed to peacefulness but . . .

AN: Still, are you sure?

MEE: There is a debate about two things: was Morsi too reformist, and that we have to destroy institutions in order to build them. That goes against your view of reconciliation. Can you comment?

AN: I think some of the Islamists are committing a very big mistake in the last few months in their calls for violence, like burning cars and they are backing up Sisi in this behaviour. They are in an arena where Sisi knows how to play. In turning violent, they lose the support of a lot of people who were treated unfairly. They also increase the fears of the Copts, the liberals, the Europeans, the Saudis and the regional allies. The January revolution committed dozens of errors. The only thing it did right was to preserve its non-violence. We are not Syria and we are not Libya and we cannot be like them. If we were, we would be sacrificing the last hope of taking Egypt back as an independent country. 

And this is over my dead body because this is betraying my own principles and I believe that there is no such thing as red blood and blue blood. A soldier who dies from the army causes me pain, like my son, or any member of parliament, or anyone who dies in the demonstrations. The people who died, I respect, but they are in the past. But the people who are the most important are the people who are not dead. I will not continue the conflict just so that more people are killed. These are our children. If my son decides to commit suicide, I will not say okay go ahead, try. This is not logical. I will have to say in my experience this is wrong, do not do this. Some of them are leaving the kids to commit suicide to die. This is like a soccer game of one player against 11. What do you expect? Would you score? The state should keep its monopoly of violence because if everyone acts violently, then we will be a catastrophe.

MEE: What is Sisi trying to do in Libya?

AN: We are very shocked about what happened to the 21 Copts who died in Libya. It was a criminal, heinous act that has no religion, nor any logic, and those who committed this crime should be punished severely, and I believe the role of the Egyptian military, the role that we believe in, is to take revenge for the Egyptians in such circumstances, but under conditions, based on international law and the punishment should be on those who committed the crimes not others. Sisi craves like a pregnant woman to enter this war, before he was even president of the republic. He created (General Khalifa) Haftar.  We cannot say we are against the punishment of those who committed those crimes, but we cannot say this gives legitimacy to the Haftar project, nor can we manage a battle in logic.

MEE: It is also dangerous for Egypt because there are a million Egyptian workers in Libya.

AN: Between 1 and 2 million. The person who drives Egypt into a war like this is not mentally sane.

MEE: What mistakes have the liberals made in Egypt?

AN: We have a real crisis going on. The crisis is that we are being persecuted, oppressed, in prison, arrested, and we are in the middle of the conflict going on between Sisi and the Brotherhood. The truth is not clear any more. Our sacrifices are not as big as those made by the Brotherhood, not the numbers of our people killed, or the numbers of our people in prison. However, we know that we did not rule. Therefore, we are paying the price of something we have not done.

We are like the concierge of the gambling club. We are not winning, not losing, but all the people walking down the streets insult us and we are not doing anything. The people around the table are the ones who win the money, and the ones who are losing. We are sitting downstairs, but we are the most visible to the people on the streets although we have nothing to do with the money on the gambling table and this is our real crisis today. The people against us, Islamic forces were not very careful to have a relationship with us and we also have an internal crisis. All the liberal forces that were in the revolution were hit severely by the regime of course, whether by arrest, assassinations, elimination and the best example is my presence here, and [Mohamed el-]Baradei in Vienna.

I am not a terrorist and Baradei is not a terrorist, but the regime deals with us, especially through the media in a more violent way than they do with Islamists. You also have another internal issue that we as liberals, since the March 1954 crisis, we have an issue with military in government. After January 25, we were shouting slogans: let the reign of the military fall, before Sisi came to political life. During 7 July, a small number of liberals got on the train of the 7 July, but they left on the first stop and the train did not continue. The ones still on board that train are not liberal forces. They are the parties allied to Mubarak and some pro-Nasserites, who see similarity between the image of the military under Nasser and the military under Sisi. There is no solution for the crisis going on in Egypt but to have a liberal solution that refuses elimination and believes in the national partnership. Thus, there is no exit from this crisis but to have two solutions: developing the voice of the Islamists and development of the behaviour of the liberals and to establish a partnership between the two.

MEE: You were offered the prime ministership of Morsi. Why did you refuse?

AN: I was asked in April 2013, and from January 2013, I knew that a coup would take place and I told Morsi since January that that would happen. I told him the overthrow would happen from the Saudis and the Emiratis, because I had relations with the Emiratis, Bin Zayed and Mohammed Dahlan and I tried to solve the issue between them and Morsi. I saw them once in December 2012 and they were barely ready for this election. I met them and I saw it was impossible to have a solution. They made the decision of the overthrow and I told Morsi that it is very clear and I told him even the solution. In December, I talked to Morsi over the phone. He told me, “I have to see you tomorrow,” and I told him, “I am now in the Emirates.” After 10 minutes, he called me again and he asked me, “What are you doing in the Emirates?” I said “Nothing, I am just being honoured with an award.” He said, “Why don’t you meet with the officials there and ask them what they are mad about, and whatever you agree upon, I agree also - no worries." I met with officials there, and told them, we agreed about the aid going to Egypt. But they insisted it went through me, not through the Brotherhood. I said I do not have an official designation, however we can do them through projects which are not related to the Brotherhood. We talked about an agricultural project and a project to build a fast train, about $3bn in aid. And I went to China to see how this could be done. On my way back from China, I went through Qatar and I also went to meet people from the Emirates. And it seemed that this was the biggest mistake I have made in my life. Because when I went to Qatar, I went with the prince and the crown prince. The Emiratis considered this to be the end of any discussion. So when I went from Qatar directly to the Emirates, it was a very bad week. They said they would not have any projects and that they would support the opposition.

MEE: But they gave money to Hamdeen Sabahi?

AN: Sabahi got money from Emirates, from Hezbollah, from Iran ... everybody. On my return, from the Emirates, I told Mohammed Morsi there are unnatural movements happening and I told him he should go to Saudi Arabia and solve the issue in Saudi Arabia. I told him what was happening in the Emirates. I had a duty to a tooth pain. If you want to solve the issue, the Emirates is the headache and you solve the tooth pain. He said: “Okay, I will see what I can do.” They made some plans that vanished and were all in vain. When he proposed to me the prime ministership, it was in April 2013. I could not agree unless there was a coalition government. The other parties that decided they would not do anything with Morsi and my position would be that I would be the one only who would form a government. And I said something to Dr Morsi and I apologised for having said that, as if I was reading from an open book. We were staying in the government palace. I told him: “During the reign of Hosni Mubarak, I used to be here. I used to tell Mubarak that the distance between here and the prison of Tora is 30 minutes.” Morsi smiled, but I didn’t. I said: “The distance between here and Tora is ...” He asked, “How much?” I said, “30 centimetres. If you want to go, go, but I do not want to go with you.” He laughed and he said: “You have a week.”

MEE: What do you think of Morsi?

AN: I know him from parliament and I was also in prison with him. We were five years in the parliament. He was sitting behind me in parliament. He was considered to be a conservative until he became president. He became a totally different person. Very kind, very liberal, forgiving, amazing, but he was not with anyone. He had people around him who were not very experienced, and all the state institutions were against him. He was dependent on these institutions to choose all the candidates, the ministers. It was like the relationship between Primakov and Yeltsin. Primakov would suggest the worst people they could find in government. So they got Sisi and Mohammed Ibrahim - and Morsi actually believed them. He had wrong beliefs, of course, unfortunately. He is not a bad person. He is not a dictator, but he was not the appropriate person at that time. So they actually committed a lifetime mistake when they made him the candidate for the presidency. But what is even more sad is that they have not learned and might make the same mistake again. And this is more dangerous because they have not learned.

We should push the revolution with our left hand, but we should also work on the political level with our right hand. We should work both. To think that things will work only on the revolution is very difficult.  Revolution has lost its popularity in Egypt.

MEE: Why is it so difficult for the opposition to unite?

AN:  There is a big lack of political experience. The people who were experienced in the Brotherhood are now in prison. The revolutionary forces definitely do not have any political experience. The idea of the revolution forces is against the idea of the political experience, because he who has experience in politics would not be joining them. Even if it’s based on the honesty of the revolution, we are in a ping pong game, which both sides do not know how to play. The ball is always off the table. The Brotherhood need a flower in their jacket, they do not look for a real partner. They have a problem in their way of thinking. They think like businessmen. They are bean counters. They think about their numbers. The numbers are important but influence is even more important. We the liberals and revolutionary forces have more influence than we do have the numbers. They said that because we have more numbers that they are more important, but they are not more influential. This is the thinking that led to 30 June and to 6 July and will not lead to a revolution. We can never do an Islamic revolution and if it happened, it would turn Egypt into Iran, Afghanistan and this is not the future we seek for our children.

MEE: Can you go back to Egypt?

AN: There is nothing stopping me legally. There is no case against me. There is hostility in the media against me and my party. Sometimes, they want me to go back and send me messages. At that time, I am not very enthusiastic. I want to go back when they are the least enthusiastic that I go back. I left Egypt within hours of a call from Sisi. I had tweeted: take off your military clothes and campaign, call for demonstrations, do whatever you want, but don’t do this as defence minister. So he called me in shock. I said, “I did not tell you to take off your clothes. I told you to take off your uniform.” And we debated for 30 minutes over the phone. I had my mobile in my left hand and with my right hands, I was packing my shirts into the suitcase. He asked me to join a conference at 12AM. At 9AM, I was in Beirut. I thought I would stay for a week, then a month, now it has been a year and a half. Baradei’s people were very sad that I left and Baradei was angry with me. He said: “Why did you leave the country?” Within a week, he left too.

MEE: What will push Sisi to start negotiating with the opposition?

AN: This reminds me of a strange question asked by Robert Fisk. This was two months before the revolution and he asked me, “Who cuts Mubarak’s hair?” I said I would delay my reply for two more months, and after the revolution, we met and I told him: “See who cuts Mubarak’s hair.” What will push any politician to negotiate is weakness. The strength is the logic of the victor. He tells himself he does not have to talk with you and I waste my time. Weakness is what pushes you to have a dialogue and to talk, not violence though.

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