"It Is a Shame for America To Be Afraid of Islam"
An interview with a senior member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.
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 from their talk.
L.W.: What did you think of the killing of Osama bin Laden?
E.E.: 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.
L.W.: So Bin Laden shouldn't have been killed?
E.E.: 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-Qaida. [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.
L.W.: 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.
E.E.: 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.
L.W.: Mubarak did not occupy the country.
E.E.: 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.
L.W.: You think the army got rid of him?
E.E.: 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 Muammar] Qaddafi and [Yemen's Ali Abdullah] Saleh.
L.W.: Was it the power of the people or the power of the mosques?
E.E.: 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.
L.W.: Were you put in jail each time or just arrested?
E.E.: Yes, put in jail. ... The last time I was arrested was during the revolution. ... Fifty-eight hours in jail. The revolution did not start on Jan. 25. 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.
L.W.: People say the army is sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood.
E.E.: 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.
L.W.: Will the Muslim Brotherhood win the next election because it is so organized?
E.E.: 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.
L.W.: Do you think the Muslim Brotherhood will have the largest bloc in the parliament?
E.E.: The last election [that] 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.
Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor of the Washington Post.
Photo by Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images.