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Q&A: The division in Egypt is ‘dangerous,’ former foreign minister says

A riot policeman restrains a rock-wielding protester Friday as opponents of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi clash with Islamist supporters of the President in Alexandria, Egypt.


Amr Moussa, the 76-year-old former foreign minister and former Secretary General of the Arab League, says the new Egyptian constitution contains many elements that concern him. Not least is the presence of certain articles that are worded imprecisely, especially in matters of social behaviour and political rights.

"We are afraid they will be interpreted as a license to intervene, to give license to [Islamists] to do whatever they want," he said. "It is our role as [opposition] to protect against that."

Egyptians approved the constitution by a majority of 64 per cent, with the final round of voting completed Saturday.

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Mr. Moussa was interviewed two days before the vote by The Globe and Mail in his office in the century-old Garden City neighbourhood of downtown Cairo, just a block from the U.S., British and Canadian embassies. For reasons of security, there is no indication outside the four-storey building, nor on the door of his main floor suites, that his offices are to be found here. But everyone outside on the street knows exactly where to find him.

Mr. Moussa, who came a personally disappointing fifth in the race for the presidency this year, looks remarkably healthy for his age, though he must occasionally lean forward to catch the wording of questions put to him in English.

Q: So it is not simply a matter of the constitution being too Islamic rather than secular?

A: I am against this generalization; though, of course, it has this flavour.

We would not have opposed that flavour – even the Copts did not oppose that – but certain articles were added that created confusion, and will make it difficult for legislators, for judges, to have their own freedom to protect rights in general.

Has the opposition to this document not left the country dangerously divided?

Yes, the division is dangerous, but it was also healthy until it crossed into the realm of danger [a reference to the clashes that followed President Mohammed Morsi's Nov. 22 decree to unilaterally accelerate the drafting of the document and put it to a referendum]. That is why we requested the referendum be postponed several times.

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It's not all the articles [that are objected to]. Let me make that clear. We're not contesting the full extent of the constitution – just certain articles of a sensitive nature. Also, this is an opposition to a text, not a political position taken vis-a-vis another political party that we want to undermine.

This does not mean, as some in the [Muslim Brotherhood's] Freedom and Justice Party say, that this is an attempt to topple the regime and a conspiracy against the President. I'm not talking about the legitimacy of the President but the credibility of his policies.

You're not opposed to Mr. Morsi as President?

While some people like to say: 'Islam is the solution,' I believe that democracy is the solution and anything that would militate against that notion would be against the interests of Egyptians. [Mr. Moussa said that doesn't mean democracy can't support Islam.] That is why I am one of those who say the President should continue his mandate. I do not believe Egypt can afford to have another presidential election at this stage.

Q: Democracy is the argument used by proponents of the constitution, too.

A: The constituent assembly did not apply democratic rules in adopting the draft resolution … nor in the way the referendum was conducted.

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Q: Do you accept that a simple majority can approve the constitution in a referendum?

A: No, I am not of this school at all. As everybody knows, there is a rule in all parliaments, and in the UN and all conferences that the important issues should be voted by a two-thirds majority.

The draft constitution itself talks about the way to amend articles – any article to be amended must have a two-thirds majority. The circumstances dictate that this constitution must be approved by a two-thirds majority.

Q: But as it is certain to pass [and did, on Saturday], where does the opposition go from here?

A: We have to decide: Should we continue along the same lines of confrontation? We must ask this because we have a country that's on the brink of another major crisis [an economic crisis]. What about all the needs of the country? What about the need for rebuilding the country? These things have to be considered.

Q: President Morsi has suggested dialogue to work out differences over articles in the constitution.

A: We are not against sitting with the President or dialogue. But this has to be real dialogue, not just a debating body. We have to sit and talk about the different issues facing us, including the economy, the other issues, including the constitution, and including what we are going to do in the next three years.

Q: Many people say the Muslim Brotherhood backers of the President resort to heavy-handed ways to intimidate people. Do you think so?

A: I believe their attitude, so far, has encouraged ways of behaviour that can be harmful or that could lead, at the end, to further division [in the country].

Q: Is it possible that their approach could lead to a dictatorship?

A: We will do everything in our power to make democracy work and prevent dictatorship from returning. I believe Egyptians will not allow it to return.

Q: Some say they would like the army to return to power.

A: I have heard this talk. I'm talking about a different road, which is to protect and defend democracy.

This is why we say: The President was democratically elected and should leave only by democratic means. I hope we will achieve our goals by democratic means

Q: Is the United States doing enough to make this clear to Mr. Morsi?

A: They don't need the Americans to tell them this – it's there in the streets. There are a lot of angry people. How can you accept such an atmosphere?

Q: But was it helpful that President Obama described President Morsi as such a good friend of the United States?

A: Well, you know the American policy is to defend democracy [on the one hand] and to work against democracy at certain times, or to help dictators.

[In Egypt] it should always support democracy and not make the same mistake twice. I understand that they support Morsi because he's elected. They should always be on the side of democracy. At the same time, for me as an Egyptian citizen, politician, I dislike the intervention or interference in our affairs of any foreign power.

Ten or 20 years ago, did you ever imagine Egypt would one day have a majority of Islamists elected to parliament and an Islamist President?

I could have imagined they would have a majority party in parliament, but to have the presidency and this second republic, [the first republic, dominated by the military, was established by the Officers' Coup of 1952] no, I never expected that.

But the Islamists do appear to be responding to a popular need.

They have been chosen because of the mismanagement of the previous regime [to the point of leaving more than 50 per cent of the country in poverty and more than 50 per cent illiterate]. When the people found that the Muslim Brotherhood was the only alternative to that regime, they voted for them. But if they now find the situation has become even worse, they will change their votes, the majority will change. And I hope that will be done through democracy, not any other way.

But we can't spend all our time talking about the constitution, about general things. We have to see what has been done about education, health care, agriculture, tourism.

The day will come, at the end of the first year, that the rule of President Morsi will be found wanting, if he does not really move quickly to address this situation.

Q: But do you think the opposition political parties are viable enough?

A: No, not yet. But regardless of the viability of the parties, the people will turn to those parties.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed comments made by Amr Moussa to Mohammed Morsi. This version has been corrected.

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