Banned for years under President Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood now functions openly in Egypt and is expected to win a sizable bloc of seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Washington Post Senior Associate Editor Lally Weymouth interviewed Essam El-Erian, a physician and senior member of the brotherhood’s ruling guidance council, in the organization’s new $11 million headquarters on May 4. Following are excerpts:
What did you think of the killing of Osama bin Laden?
For us, Osama bin Laden never represented Islam. Islam is a peaceful religion. Violent groups are a minority among Islamic groups. . . .
Even though it was war, it didn’t give America the right to kill a person while the forces could capture him.
So bin Laden shouldn’t have been killed?
To be brought to justice, this would have been better for America. . . . America committed some mistakes. First, killing him instead of arresting him. Second, they violated the sovereignty of Pakistan, putting the president and the Pakistani government in a critical situation. I criticize bin Laden and al-Qaeda. It [Pakistan] is a corrupted regime. But we are talking about the state, not the regime. This gives an important message to others — to Saudi Arabia and all your allies — that they are not trusted.
The Muslim Brotherhood has had many problems in Egypt during the past 30 years. A lot of your members — including yourself — have been put in jail. You have come a long way to have this vast headquarters now. Two years ago, this would not have been allowed.
Yes, but this change was brought about by Egyptians. Because for the last two centuries, this region has been under interference from others on the outside.
Mubarak did not occupy the country.
Yes. He was Egyptian. This was an internal occupation. Who was supporting Mubarak? Not the army only. The army got rid of him. The main support to Mubarak was from the U.S.
You think the army got rid of him?
Yes, after they saw millions of people in the streets. . . . Your administration tried to give him a shelter as they do now with [Libya’s Moammar] Gaddafi and [Yemen’s Ali Abdullah] Saleh.
Was it the power of the people or the power of the mosques?
This revolution had many steps to it. . . . I was arrested myself before the assassination of [Anwar] Sadat for one year. We were all arrested and released after Sadat’s assassination. Then I became a member of the parliament from 1987 to 1990. Then I was arrested again and tried before a military court, and jailed for five years. And during the last seven years, I was arrested five times. Annually I was arrested.
Were you put in jail each time or just arrested?
Yes, put in jail. . . . The last time I was arrested was during the revolution . . . 58 hours in jail. The revolution did not start on 25 January. We had many battles — about the independence of the judiciary and about free and fair elections. We reached this point, and they launched a new campaign on Facebook, that is true.
People say the army is sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The army is a professional army, a neutral army. The army cannot take the responsibility for this country and for shooting people. The army is keen to transfer power to the people after free and fair elections. That is very important — to have an army in Egypt that supports democracy. This is a new army — those colleagues of [former president Gamal Abdel] Nasser’s are dead, and those who participated in the October War [in 1973] are mostly gone. This is a new army not spoiled by politics, not having dreams of catching power. . . . Many of them studied in the U.S., talked with your officials and your think tanks — they are well-educated. They are nationalists — they have nothing to do with politics. From the start, they stated that they reject any call to keep power or stay for a long time.
Will the Muslim Brotherhood win the next election because it is so organized?
The next election must represent all political factions, even weak groups. We as the Muslim Brotherhood are keen to have a coalition to go to the elections together to have a parliament that represents all Egyptians, not only powerful groups. All Egyptians must be represented — Muslims, Coptics, leftists, liberalists, nationalists, Islamists — all must be there to have a neutral committee to write the constitution. This is very important for a real democracy.
Do you think the Muslim Brotherhood will have the largest bloc in the parliament?
The last election which was semi-free, semi-fair, in 2005, we gained 20 percent of the seats. In the next election, we are not targeting the majority at all. So we will nominate between 45 to 50 percent. . . . I think it would be fair to gain 30 percent in a free and fair election.
Let’s talk about your vision for a new Egypt.
It must be democratic with a parliamentary system, cooperative with the region, cooperative with the world. We have common values. We are ready for democracy, we are fighting for freedom.
What about America? Do you see good relations continuing?
Of course. But America must respect this independence of Egypt. We started by talking about the violation of the sovereignty of Pakistan. We have no problem with the U.S. except that it supported Mubarak for 30 years continuously and without any alarm to stop his violations of human rights. The Egyptian people may have some bitterness in their chest about America’s policy. . . .
America supported Saudi Arabia, which is a closed regime. They supported Saddam Hussein for a long time, and then they killed him. They supported the Iran of [Shah] Pahlavi and has been against Iran of today.
You cannot say Iran is a democratic power.
I cannot of course describe Iran as a democratic power. But it is better than at the time of the shah.
What about Israel? Will Egypt keep the treaty?
The state would keep the treaty.
Would you keep the treaty?
Yes, a new parliament would make that decision. The army says frankly, and we say it also: We cannot cancel a treaty by a verbal decision. Treaties have regulations and must be respected from both sides. When one side doesn’t respect the treaty, the international community must obligate it to do so.
Your leader, Mohammed Badie, said Arab and Muslim regimes are betraying their people by failing to confront Muslims’ real enemies — not only Israel but also the U.S. Is this your opinion?
No. We never talk about America as an enemy. Of course you can have a strategy which since [Henry] Kissinger’s visit to Sadat gives optimum support to Israel. America needs to catch the moment. If you don’t review and revise your strategy for the region, you can lose this region.
The head of the Muslim Brotherhood said governments have no right to stop their people from fighting the United States, and those who do are ignoring Allah’s call to wage jihad.
That is against occupying troops, against occupation. That is a human right. Yesterday [Afghan President] Karzai went to the press to say you killed bin Laden in Pakistan and you are killing innocent people in Afghanistan. That is Karzai, your man. And now you create chaos in Iraq and you hand Iraq to Iran.
The idea is to resist foreign troops?
On Sunday after killing bin Laden, we called on America to start deploying their troops out of Afghanistan and out of Iraq. . . . When Obama was elected, he said he was going to withdraw from Iraq. This is a proper moment if he is going to win the next election.
What about Egyptian troops in the Sinai?
Sinai is Egyptian land, and it must be treated as any Egyptian land.
But the Sinai has been demilitarized.
We are not threatening Israel. Israel is hurting itself by its policies. It is discriminating inside Israel against Arabs. . . . Israel is not under threat from Arabs — it is under threat from inside Israel, from its leaders like [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu and [Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman. It is under threat from Israelis. I studied the society of Israel, I know everything about this fight and this state. My dream is that we are not going to destroy Israel. If it doesn’t revise its policy against Arabs and Jews, it can destroy itself. My dream is to live together as we did before the state of Israel. We lived in peace. We were never in conflict. Americans and Europeans exported the conflict created by Hitler to our land.
You mean because there was a Holocaust?
Yes. The Holocaust was a massacre against a race, against a religion — it is a really big crime, but we were never accused of it. Why do the Palestinians pay the price of Nazis?
Do you think Egypt should be ruled by sharia law?
The principles of sharia are the main source of legalization. That is in the constitution. You look for sharia as a foundation.
What does it say about the role of women?
Equal to men.
So could a woman run for office?
Of course, if the people elected it.
What about minorities?
People say the Muslim Brothers are using the Salafis, who practice a fundamentalist form of Islam.
Never — the Salafis were used against us.
So you have a relationship with them?
Not a relationship, no. They have some doubts about democracy. They are extremist in some affairs about women. But the majority of them are nonviolent. We advise them to respect democracy, respect Copts.
Would you ban alcohol if you come to power?
We are not going to come to power. Our power is our values. But we are not going to use this power to rule the country.
Is every businessman going to be put on trial or forced to leave the country?
Please, America is a powerful country, it is a strong country. It is a shame for America to be afraid of Islam or Egyptians or democracy or the will of the people or choice of the people. The America which we know is an America of values, not an America of troops, of arms. America that exports values to the whole world, not bombarding Afghanistan or Iraq. That is the America which we respect and the America which we want to live with.
Did you know that there was going to be a change and that the revolution was coming?
Do you want to see Mubarak put on trial?
[Perhaps] he can pass away safely. He is an elderly man, a sick man. . . .
Mubarak put me in jail for about eight years, but I never feel revenge toward him. He had many opportunities, many options to save himself and his family and the country. He lost them all. And the people here can forgive him for anything, but they cannot forgive him for ordering the police to kill people in the streets.