Skip to main content

Wael Aboulmagd, shown Aug. 26, 2013, is Egypt’s ambassador to Canada.DAVE CHAN/The Globe and Mail

In Egypt, an elected president has been ousted, and now sits in jail, along with many other leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. The military, which backed dictator Hosni Mubarak for decades until the 2011 revolution, is now behind an interim government.

But Egyptian ambassador to Canada Wael Aboulmagd argues it is all, somehow, part of his country's "swerving, zig-zag" path to democracy. The jubilation of Mr. Mubarak's ouster in 2011 has turned to polarization and clashes, he concedes, but he insists Egypt is not witnessing the return to military-backed dictatorship.

"Absolutely not. Because it's a very simple fact of life that we cannot ignore everything that has taken place in Egypt since January, 2011," Mr. Aboulmagd said in an interview with The Globe and Mail last week. "This is fundamental to understanding what's happening. Everything has changed since that day. People have a sense of ownership. People are empowered. People are the best guarantor of that not happening."

Mr. Aboulmagd's optimistic assessment appears to clash with headlines of bloody crackdowns and arrests that have emerged from Egypt since July. Just this weekend, former president Mohammed Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders were ordered to stand trial on charges including murder and inciting violence, and a judicial panel set up by the interim government has backed a legal challenge to the Brotherhood's status, in what some see as a step toward banning it.

Many Egypt analysts view the developments as an effort to intimidate the Brotherhood; they see military chief General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi as the dominant figure in the government, and believe the constitution now being drafted will ensure the military's power and privileges endure. But the ambassador argues most Egyptians see things differently.

In three years in Canada, Mr. Aboulmagd, a career diplomat, has served four regimes – arriving in September, 2010, for the last months of Mr. Mubarak's tenure, staying through brief military-council leadership and Mr. Morsi's election, and now the military-backed interim government. He has argued before that people power will counter excesses.

"I recall in the early days of 2011, after the revolution, the No. 1 question was, 'Is Egypt going to be another Iran?'" he said. "And I insisted at that time that the people will not accept it."

That is, in effect, something like Mr. Aboulmagd said happened with Mr. Morsi: the public said, "Wait a minute, we're going to start over again if we have to, to ensure that the country's not hijacked." Mr. Morsi, he said, "alienated way too many groupings of Egyptians" – liberal secularists, the judiciary, the media – and not just with changes to the constitution and his own powers, but also pronouncements that raised concerns for women or minorities. It's valid to question whether that is cause to remove an elected president, he added, but millions took to the street to call for early elections, and, the military stepped in when Mr. Morsi would not make some compromise. "We were very much on the verge of some sort of very, very bloody confrontation," he said.

There was, in fact, a bloody confrontation after Mr. Morsi's ouster. More than 900 people died when Egyptian security forces cleared Brotherhood protesters in August clashes. Mr. Aboulmagd said that violence should be condemned, and insists an Egyptian commission is investigating. But he noted there were attacks that killed police officers and army conscripts, and damaged churches and even a blood bank. "Ignoring the other part of the equation seems to cast doubts on the intentions of some of the people looking into Egypt," he said.

Only some 20 or 30 leaders of the Brotherhood and its political arm have been arrested, he added, but other supporters and those not convicted can still participate in the political process.

Mr. Aboulmagd also dismissed concerns that the military will rig constitutional amendments to retain power, arguing that they have been quick to set a timetable for return to civilian control.

It won't be simple, Mr. Aboulmagd said, but he insists the revolution he applauded in 2011 has not been undone. "I was never under illusion. I consistently told my Canadian friends it is a process, not an event. He added: "We wish that everything would be easy and simple. It's not going to go in a linear fashion – it's going to go in a swerving, zig-zag fashion."