The following are excerpts from Washington Post senior associate editor Lally Weymouth’s Aug. 1 interview with Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, Egypt’s defense minister, armed forces commander and deputy prime minister.
Sissi: The Egyptian military does not make coup d’états. The last coup was in the fifties. There is a very special relationship that binds the Egyptians and their military.
The dilemma between the former president and the people originated from the ideology that the Muslim Brotherhood adopted for building a country, which is based on restoring the Islamic religious empire.
It was always in their minds that they have the exclusive truth and the exclusive rights. This made them lead the country only to satisfy the grass-roots that they represent. That’s what made him [Morsi] not a president for all Egyptians.
Weymouth: When did that become obvious to you?
It was obvious [from] the day of his inauguration. He started by offending the judiciary … [Then] The Brotherhood experience in ruling a country was very modest – if not absent. A major part of their culture is to work secretly underground.
We [the army] dealt with the president with all due respect for a president chosen by the Egyptians. We were very sincere in all the assessments that we referred to him throughout the period I was in my office as commander in chief.
We understand also that the military’s intervention to support the Egyptians was not a surprise. We can go back [through] my statements, starting with my invitation to the political powers in Egypt to come to a negotiating table for reconciliation in November of last year until the last 48-hour deadline I gave the president and the political powers to come to a compromise.
Was this before the constitution?
Before. There was sincere advice referred to the president [by the army] on developments on the ground and . . . proposed recommendations [as to] how to deal [with them].
So you were giving the president advice on Ethiopia and the Sinai, for example, and he was ignoring you?
The military [was] very keen and predetermined on [Morsi’s] success. If we wanted to oppose or not allow [the Brotherhood] to come to rule Egypt, we would have done things with the elections, as elections used to be rigged in the past.
Unfortunately, the former president picked fights with almost all the state institutions — with the judiciary, with the al-Azhar religious institution, with the Coptic church, with the media, and with the political powers. Even with public opinion. When a president is having conflicts with all of these state institutions, the chance of success for such a president is very meager. On the other hand, the president was trying to call in supporters from religious groups.
From inside Egypt. He was trying to call in and mobilize around him people with religious backgrounds in order to show that he had support.
But not from other countries?
Both, as a matter of fact. It was available at that time for these people to come to support him from the inside or the outside.
Reportedly, he made it available for people to come from Afghanistan and to go to the Sinai, is that true?
Yes, he made it available for people from Afghanistan to come into Egypt and maybe to go into Sinai. The influence of the jihadist Salifists. . . [increased] over time. The security procedures that were in place to prevent terrorist elements and weapons from entering the country disappeared with president [Morsi]. So they found a very free and fertile environment to work in.
Remember this — the concept of the state with [the Brotherhood] is completely different than the concept of any modern state that we can find around the world. They look at political borders as boundaries created by imperialism to put the Islamic world under partition.
Did they have contacts with other Islamic groups in other countries?
They have an international presence in more than 60 countries — the Muslim Brotherhood. The idea that gathers them together is not nationalism, it’s not patriotism — it is an ideology that is totally related to the concept of the organization.
Let’s go back to the developing circumstances here. Among the Egyptians, resentment started to rise. They were also terrified and terrorized in their own homes. It is true that former president Morsi came to office with 51 percent of the people’s vote, but many of them felt that they had put their lives and the lives of their children in the wrong hands. They did not imagine that this leadership would deal with them the way it did throughout the year.
The Muslim Brotherhood have their own values, but they look at their own values as those that should be followed and imposed upon the Egyptians. No one else has the right to their own principles. We find that their real representation among the Egyptians varies between 5 to 10 percent maximum.
You hear 30 percent or so in the U.S.
Americans base their estimates on the results of the elections. A major part of this percentage is composed of sympathetic Egyptian voters. The Egyptians felt sympathy for people who had been humiliated and oppressed by the previous regime. They believed in their goodness, in their religious appearance, and they gave them their votes.
To many Egyptians, you are a hero. Will you run for president?
I am not a hero. I’m just a person who loves his people and country and felt hurt that the Egyptians were treated in such a way. The simple Egyptian people were crying in their homes. Heroism comes only from mutual sentiments. It’s not an epic deed that has been conducted.
Are you disappointed by U.S. reaction to the events of July 3rd? Do you feel it is unfair?
The United States was never far from anything that was going on here. We were very keen on providing very clear briefings to all U.S. officials.
Months ago, I told them there was a very big problem in Egypt. I asked for their support, for their consultation, for their advice, as they are our strategic partner and allies.
Months ago. The developments and complications of the situation were very clearly provided for the Americans many months ago.
Did you tell them before Morsi left that he was going to go?
Not even the day before?
In our statements, we said in clear words that the complications and developments on the ground would lead to a civil war here.
When these statements came out in March, in the U.S. there were a lot of question marks. They said, “Why is the General saying that the developments and complications on the ground will lead to a crisis?”
The numbers of the people who began to oppose the political leadership grew in size and continued to grow until there was that spectacular mass of the people. Throughout the different phases, we had our recommendations and proposed advice [to Morsi]. A lot of things could have happened – like, for example, forming a coalition government without having to touch the post of the president.
If Morsi had cooperated?
Cooperated with the people, not with me.
In order to stay as president, he would have had to agree to something?
He just used to listen to all recommendations and advice but never executed any of them. Yes. I believe it wasn’t him alone who was making the decisions. There was the organization of the Brotherhood behind him — the Guidance Office of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian people felt that he wasn’t the man making the decisions and that he wasn’t their president. He was the president of a certain faction, and he was not exercising command or leadership. The leadership was in the hands of the Brotherhood. And this is one major reason for his failure.
The United States is very concerned about the sit-ins at Rabaa [al-Adawiya mosque] and Nahdet [Misr Square], [two areas in Cairo where the Muslim Brotherhood has staged protests].
We really wonder: where is the role of the United States and the European Union and all of the other international forces that are interested in the security, safety and well-being of Egypt? Are the values of freedom and democracy exclusively exercised in your countries but other countries do not have the right to exercise the same values and enjoy the same environment? Have you seen the scores of millions of Egyptians calling for change in Tahrir? What is your response to that?
You left the Egyptians, you turned your back on the Egyptians and they won’t forget that. Now you want to continue turning your backs on Egyptians? The U.S. interest and the popular will of the Egyptians don’t have to conflict. We always asked the U.S. officials to provide advice to the former president to overcome his problems.
What did the United States do?
The result is very obvious. Where is the economic support to Egypt from the U.S.? Even throughout the year when the former president was in office — where was the U.S. support to help the country restore its economy and overcome its dire needs?
The dynamics in the street here is very fast. The will of the people moves by the hour. Only 20 days before Morsi was ousted, the public was only calling for reshuffling the government. But ten days later, the demands changed to having early presidential elections. Five days later, the call was for Morsi to leave.
I want to remind you that we gave a 7-day grace period for everybody in Egypt before the 30th of June – a period for the key players to work the problem out. On June 30th, at the end of the seven days, I gave an extra 48 hours. I stated very clearly that with the end of the 48 hours, if nothing changes, there would be a road map declared between the military and political powers of Egypt.
The day the communique was declared [July 3], there was a meeting [I called] with the [Coptic] pope, the grand sheikh of al-Azhar, Dr. [Mohamed] ElBaradei, a political representative of the Salifist Nour Party, a representative for the Egyptian women, representatives from the Egyptian judiciary and representatives from the young people, the Tamarod. The Freedom and Justice Party was invited to this meeting.
And they didn’t come?
They didn’t show up. At this meeting, all attendees agreed on the road map. The first point is that the chief justice of the supreme constitutional court will be an interim president for the republic. A technocrat government has been formed. A committee will be formed of legal and constitutional experts to address constitutional amendments and provide recommendations for public debate. After the public debate, the constitution will be put up for a public referendum. Once the constitution is approved, we will conduct parliamentary and then presidential elections within nine months.
Are you going to run for president?
I want to say that the most important achievement in my life is to overcome this circumstance, [to ensure] that we live peacefully, to go on with our road map and to be able to conduct the coming elections without shedding one drop of Egyptian blood.
But are you going to run?
You just can’t believe that there are people who don’t aspire for authority.
Is that you?
Yes. It’s the hopes of the people that is our [hope]. And when the people love you – this is the most important thing for me.
The pains and suffering of the people are too many. A lot of people don’t know about the suffering. I am the most aware of the size of the problems in Egypt. That is why I am asking: where is your support? The title of the article should be “Hey America: Where is your support for Egypt? Where is your support for free people?”
On July 3rd, the same day the communique was declared, I sent a message to the former president. I asked him to keep the initiative in his hands. Put yourself to a public referendum and see if the people want you.
And he said?
No way. Not yet. After two years.
Did he understand that he was just about to go?
No. Nobody expected that.
When did you make up your mind?
I made every possible effort to show due respect and due discipline for the state institution to the very last minute.
Did you feel there would be civil strife if the army didn’t intervene?
I expected if we didn’t intervene, it would have turned into a civil war. Four months before he left, I told Morsi the same thing. I told him that the way you and your group are dealing with the Egyptians, you are creating a conflict between your supporters, who deal with the Egyptians not as political opposition but as people who are trying to fight against Islam. I told him at that time that if the two groups of Egyptians, your supporters and the rest of the Egyptians, fight with each other, as the military, I wouldn’t be able to do anything.
What I want the American reader to know is that this is a free people who rebelled against an unjust political rule, and this free people needs your support. You are dealing with a patriotic and an honorable military institution that does not aspire for power and the Egyptians should be supported and assisted by the free peoples of the world. Because Egyptians won’t forget who is extending their helping hands and who is turning their backs on them.
Aren’t the Americans warning the interim government against any further civil strife or bloodshed?
The U.S. administration has a lot of leverage and influence with the Muslim Brotherhood, and I’d really like the U.S. administration to use this leverage with them to resolve the conflict.
How do you feel about reconciliation with [the Islamists]? Do you think it’s important?
How can you do that when the Muslim Brotherhood feels they won the election and now their leaders are in jail?
In your opinion, how many Muslim Brothers are in jail? 5,000? 7,000?
I have no idea.
It’s about eight or nine people. And they were arrested legally with legal warrants.
The leaders, Saad al-Katatni and Khairat al-Shater, are the only ones in jail right now under investigation for prosecution. The rest of the leaders are outside. Most of them are in Rabaa. They are protecting themselves with the masses of the people there.
Whoever will clean these squares or resolve these sit-ins will not be the military. There is a civil police and they are assigned to these duties. On the 26th of this month, more than 30 million people went out onto the streets to give me support. These people are waiting for me to do something.
I heard people are starting to criticize you because you haven’t done anything about the two sites. Is that true?
Can we just sacrifice thousands of people on the street just to evade criticism? I cannot do anything that would lead to bloodshed to evade criticism.
What is Hamas’ involvement inside Egypt?
Hamas is part of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood looked at Hamas as part of the family.
How can you assure the United States that you don’t want the military to rule Egypt — that the army wants to go back to its barracks?
Mark my words and take me very seriously: The Egyptian military is different from other militaries around the world.
Is your intention not to have the military step in again? With the new constitution, is your intention to adopt democracy in Egypt?
Yes, we understand that mechanisms of democracies and the constitutions around the world provide the means for the people to change or impeach their presidents if they are not satisfied with their performances.
But you hope the future constitution provides for a democratic way [to oust a leader]? Do you really want to have civilian rule here?
That is your dream one day?
Yes, I hope this day will come soon.
In a future election, would Egypt accept international observers?
We are ready to receive monitors and international observers for the elections from everywhere in the world.
The Egyptians are looking up to you, the Americans. Don’t disappoint their hopes. Don’t give them your backs. In the Egyptian culture, talking a lot about aid and U.S. assistance really hurts our pride and dignity.
Are you referring to a possible cut off of U.S. assistance? Are you worried?
If the Americans want to cut assistance, they can do that. But they don’t have to hurt us. That hurts the Egyptians a lot.
Were you upset by the hold up of the [F-16s]?
Yes. This is not the way to deal with a patriotic military.
Did President Obama call you after July 3rd?
Did any U.S. official call you? Secretary of State [John F.] Kerry? Defense Secretary [Chuck] Hagel?
Hagel. Almost every day.
I just want to emphasize that you are dealing with a person who is honorable, sincere, someone who has integrity. Someone who would not have respected himself if he didn’t do what he did [on July 3rd]. I could have just satisfied myself being a Minister of Defense and turned my head away from the Egyptians and the problems from which they were suffering every day and just left the Egyptian scene to boil. We changed places – the military and the Egyptians. We wanted to give them comfort, to relieve their suffering, and take the suffering on our shoulders. We relieved their suffering and took it on our shoulders.
Read Lally Weymouth’s story on the Sissi interview here.