Dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim recently returned to Egypt from exile. Washington Post senior associate editor Lally Weymouth talked with him in Cairo. Excerpts follow:
L.W.: How many years have you been out of the country?
SEI: Four years.
L.W.: You weren't allowed to come back to Egypt or you would have been arrested?
SEI: Yes, there were about 28 cases against me [brought by the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak]. This time when I landed, there were thousands of people waiting for me. I have dominated the news. ... This bodes ill for the future of democracy in this country.
L.W.: Because the other liberal forces are in disarray?
L.W.: Are the Salafis as numerous as the Muslim Brotherhood?
SEI: No, but they are more vehement.
L.W.: More Islamist?
SEI: They claim to be. They cut off this guy's ear [a Copt]. They have disrupted transportation [by sitting on railroad tracks] in Qena. That's where I became very alarmed. ... Neutral people [could get] the idea that this is the bandwagon, and they should jump on it.
L.W.: So the Muslim Brotherhood could win the upcoming parliamentary elections?
SEI: We've always known the Muslim Brothers could command between 20 and 25 percent of the popular vote. With more freedom, they probably can raise this to 30 percent.
L.W.: What did [the regime] do to you in prison?
SEI: They destroyed my nervous system. I have had four surgeries. I came out of prison paralyzed. ... It took me three years to be able to walk.
L.W.: There doesn't seem to be an obvious strong secular leader here.
SEI: There are several who could be. One is Judge [Hesham] El-Bastawisi. I supported him because he stood up to Mubarak in the last election when Mubarak wanted him to sign as a judge to vindicate the integrity of the election, but there was none.
L.W.: How will the party of Egypt's leading businessman, Naguib Sawiris, do? Would you join it?
SEI: I would explore it—it is liberal, secular, and pluralistic.
L.W.: Sawiris seems very worried about the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power.
SEI: He should be. Everybody should worry but not panic.
L.W.: Do you think that if you and Sawiris join forces you could get a lot of votes?
SEI: If we can work together, yes. I am taking a few more days to explore things.
L.W.: Were you surprised by the revolution?
SEI: I was surprised [by] how quickly it came. I had organized demonstrations for years, but it was always 2,000, 3,000 people. ... It was technology—when 80,000 youngsters signed up on Facebook [to say] that they would show up—
When the Mubarak government saw the protesters, they cut the Internet. It backfired. ... [W]hen parents couldn't reach their children by phone, they went down to Tahrir Square to look for them. The number of demonstrators increased, and they stayed.
L.W.: Do you have friends in the army?
SEI: Of course. ... It is not in the tradition of the Egyptian army to fire on citizens. They have only one mission, and that is to defend the border.
L.W.: The army decided to get rid of Mubarak, right?
SEI: The Egyptian chief of staff, on orders from the White House, was escalating the pressure. President [Barack] Obama's advisers, who are good friends—Samantha Power and Michael McFaul—asked me to come [to Washington]. They relied on me as a source. ... After Mubarak's second speech, Obama became convinced [that Mubarak had to go].
L.W.: When Mubarak said he would not leave?
SEI: He just dragged his feet as if staying when everyone had expected him to be leaving. ... That is when Obama realized why Egyptians do not trust Mubarak. The White House thought that no one would go back on a promise.
L.W.: But to whom did Mubarak make this promise?
SEI: An adviser to Mubarak made this promise to an adviser of the National Security Council.
L.W.: How will the Egyptian relationship with the U.S. be going forward?
SEI: The same.
L.W.: People in Washington are worried.
SEI: In the square—were there any anti-American slogans? Any anti-Israeli slogans? No. They are focused on the domestic situation. As long as America supports the process ... they will get a lot of points with everybody. ... I think if the Muslim Brothers gain overwhelming support, you should be concerned about that because of their connection to Hezbollah, to Iran, and their built-in hostility toward Israel.
L.W.: Do you think Egypt's treaty with Israel will stay as is?
SEI: If I were president I would respect all prior agreements.
L.W.: Aren't the Egyptians putting Israel in a real corner with this Hamas-Fatah deal?
SEI: I am seeing it as Hamas [wanting] legitimacy. You don't change overnight, but Hamas' anti-Israeli rhetoric has cooled off. More important, their military operations have decreased.
L.W.: They are still hitting Israeli towns with rockets.
SEI: In the Middle East you look at the process. Their agreement with the PLO is partly to get back into the negotiation process and to do so before September.
L.W.: You are referring to the Palestinian Authority's plan to ask for recognition of a Palestinian state at the U.N. General Assembly?
SEI: Right. It would not be as strong if you had a faction that is casting doubt. So Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and President Mahmoud Abbas seem to have realized that they need to get their act together.
L.W.: Do you have to decide now [whether] to run?
SEI: I am not going to decide now. I have to consult with my daughters. I am 72 years old and have been calling for the younger generation to take over.