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Interview: Grass-Roots Revolutionary Has Faith In Muslim Brotherhood

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood's Muhammad Morsi hold his portrait during a demonstration on Cairo's Tahrir Square on June 21, three days before he was announced as Egypt's next president.
Assuming that there was no use with authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak pulling the strings, Samia Shehata never involved herself in Egyptian politics. But then she drew inspiration from the anger she felt over the death of a young Egyptian man, Khaled Muhammad Said, at the hands of police in 2010. On January 25, 2011, the 55-year-old Shahata got her chance to speak out, joined the popular protests that eventually ousted Mubarak, and helped launch the El-Destour party led by Mohammad ElBaradei. After Egypt's recent presidential elections, Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Sultan Sarwar spoke to Shahata about the results of the revolution.

RFE/RL: What kind of government were you hoping for when you joined the protests last year on Tahrir square?

Shehata: At that time we had not prepared anything because, as you know, the revolution was without a leader or well-known leaders, with only Dr. ElBaradei having called for change since 2010. So the Egyptian revolution, unlike other revolutions, had no obvious leader, but we all believed that any regime other than Mubarak's would be a better one. The Muslim Brotherhood (Editor's note: the Islamist party whose candidate, Muhammad Morsi, won the June 16-17 runoff and assumed the presidency on June 30) was lucky, because it had been involved in the political scene for a long time, its members had organized political activities on the Egyptian street. The regime used to depend on them socially to address the needs of poor people in densely populated villages, where they built a broad popular base and took advantage of it in the [presidential] election.

RFE/RL: [Before the Arab spring] could you be described as a liberal?
Samia Shehata is a 55-year-old political activist who spent years under the Mubarak regime thinking her voice might never be heard.
Samia Shehata is a 55-year-old political activist who spent years under the Mubarak regime thinking her voice might never be heard.

Shehata: You could consider us moderate Muslims, leaning toward liberal governance. In general, we ruled out the interference of religion in politics.

RFE/RL: After having been an active participant in most of the street demonstrations [in January 2011], how do you feel about Morsi, an Islamist, becoming president of Egypt? But, before answering that question, how did you vote in the recent elections and could you tell me for whom you voted?

Shehata: No, unfortunately I didn't vote. I decided not to participate. And as I announced to all my colleagues, it was because, firstly, I basically didn't agree with having a presidential election without a law clearly defining the powers of the president. Secondly, I had objections with the immunity granted to the Election Commission. So for these two reasons, I boycotted the presidential election, although I do lean toward the Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi [of the Dignity Party].

Regarding President Morsi, I want to say that it is not necessary to doubt everything. I think he is facing much bigger challenges in Egypt that preclude him from forming a hard-line government. Egypt today faces problems with the economy, health-care services, and in education. Living conditions have deteriorated significantly in the 16 months since the revolution. I believe what he has said many times -- that Egypt is a civil, democratic, and modern state. I think it is best for President Morsi to have the support of liberals and other Egyptians not affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood or other religious groups....

I believe, as different sources have told me, that Morsi is a consensual and patriotic human being. He is attentive to the underprivileged. I say underprivileged, because 40 percent of the people in Egypt live under the poverty line. So, he does not face the challenge of introducing the hijab or niqab, or imposing a theocratic government. He has to feed, educate, and accommodate people and to rescue them from the evil of poverty.

The Muslim Brotherhood is not frightening to me; they are a part of the Egyptian people. Their level of religiosity is somehow different than ours, as moderate Muslims. But it would be wise on their part to not lose everything. And if they move toward a theocratic government they will lose every thing and jeopardize their political future in Egypt.

RFE/RL: What kind of role will the Muslim Brotherhood resemble more, that of the Justice and Development party in Turkey or the government of Iran's Islamic republic?

Shehata: I rule out the Iranian scenario. With all due respect to Iran, every country has its own distinctive characteristics. I think one of the most significant traits of Egypt is that more than 10 percent of our population is Christian (Editor's note: 9 percent Coptic, 1 percent other Christian). They must be taken into consideration when determining the form the state takes. I don't think that in Iran they have that percentage of Christians.

RFE/RL: Fears have been expressed about the loss and limitation of individual freedoms under an Islamist leader in Egypt. Are you concerned about the wearing of the hijab being imposed, or limitations to the role of women?

Shehata: I don' t think they can do that because we exhibited such strong determination as a nation. And I don' t think that the imposition of the hijab is their priority. When we talk about limiting women's roles, they can't lay them off because women in Egypt constitute 40 percent of the workforce in all aspects of life. President Morsi stated at the beginning that Egypt is a civil, democratic, and modern state. I think modernity necessitates the participation of every individual of Egyptian society in the coming renaissance. If they are calling for a renaissance then they have to prove in the coming stages that they are taking advantage of every working hand despite its gender, color, creed, or political affiliation.

We want to build a strong country. For me, as a moderate Muslim woman who leans toward liberalism, I can' t imagine that there would be a human being imposing upon me how to dress, what to do, how to act, or anything like that. Interference in personal freedom is not acceptable according to all international conventions. We have accepted human rights conventions. We will stay vigilant against any attempt to alter our Egyptian identity.

RFE/RL: Even President Morsi has stressed on different occasions that Egypt will respect all conventions and treaties, but there are still concerns that Egypt might review its peace treaty with Israel, which was a cornerstone to peace in the region over the last three decades. Do you think that Egypt, under an Islamist president's rule, will review this treaty in the future?

Shehata: Egypt, as an influential country in the region, will respect its treaties. If there is an article in the treaty that could adversely affect Egypt, then it should be reviewed. That is a basic condition of all international treaties. I mean, if there is an unfair article, it should be reviewed via contacts with all sides of the treaty under international sponsorship. It could be provided by the United States -- as the primary sponsor of the Camp David peace treaty -- or the European Union. If president Mosi plans to review unfair articles of the treaty, I support him. But I am against the cancellation of the treaty, and war.