- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is Asia Editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington DC. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, Al-Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
On July 3, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian defense minister, announced the removal of President Mohamed Morsy, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, and the suspension of the Egyptian constitution. It’s a very uncertain time now for Egypt, and events are still in motion — at press time, Morsy’s office called his ouster a "complete military coup" — a view not shared by Egyptian Ambassador to the United States Mohamed Tawfik. As news of the military’s move broke, I sat down with the ambassador at his embassy, which was surprisingly quiet considering Egypt’s current turmoil.
In our interview, Tawfik denied that Egypt’s military had seized power in a coup, arguing instead that the Egyptian "people have made a very clear choice." The interview below is edited and condensed for clarity.
Foreign Policy: Was this a coup?
Mohamed Tawfik: It’s not a coup because the military did not take power. The military did not initiate it, it was a popular uprising. The military stepped in in order to avoid violence. At no point has the military come back to rule Egypt. That’s not happening, that’s not going to happen. We should remember that right after the fall of [Former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak, the military were asked by all factions of Egypt to rule the country for the transitional period, and they voluntarily left power, which is a clear indication that they are not interested in a political role.
FP: Will the embassy staff recognize the rule of the military?
MT: We represent the people of Egypt, and the people have made a very clear choice. Elections are important, the ballot box is important, but the ballot box is not a blank check. We will continue to represent people’s interests. The choice of the Egyptian people is to have a transitional period, followed by early elections.
FP: When are elections?
MT: Elections have not been set yet.
FP: Will [Interim President and former Supreme Constitutional Court Chief Justice Adly Mansour] actually be in control, or will it be the military?
MT: I have no doubt that he will have full powers. The military did not stage a coup — what happened was that the Egyptian people [chose] — over 10 million people in the streets, not only in Cairo but in virtually all the major Egyptian cities. That was a very clear position by the people of Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood, rather than conform to what the Egyptian people wanted, they chose to mobilize some of their supporters, and they chose to inflame the situation. The army had no option but to intervene, to save the country from a very serious situation. The army will not rule — they made it very clear from the beginning that they have no intention to rule.
FP: Where is Morsy now?
MT: I have no idea.
FP: Do you fear a civil war?
MT: No. There may be random acts of violence, but the overwhelming majority of Egyptians have made their decision.
FP: Was the U.S. military acting in collusion with the generals?
MT: The United States has absolutely nothing to do with the decisions of the Egyptian people.
FP: What is the position of the U.S. government on the latest developments?
MT: We have not yet had any contacts with the US government. No contacts at all — we’re talking about a decision that just happened.
FP: What support would you like from the U.S. at this moment?
MT: I would like the U.S. to support Egypt’s transition to democracy. What we’re talking about is an inclusive democracy — we would like to have every single Egyptian feel that their government responds to their needs, that their human rights and human dignity are respected.
FP: What should Americans know about Sisi?
MT: What you should know about the Egyptian military as a whole is that it is a national military, professional military, a very broad-based military — all sectors of society are represented, and it is widely respected.
FP: And Sisi?
MT: Al-Sisi has proven himself to be a very reasonable and energetic leader of the military; he’s also very respected.
FP: What should we expect in the next 24 hours?
MT: I think we shall see the putting into place of the road map that was put forward today.
FP: When is the constitution going to be reinstated?
MT: As I understand it, there is going to be an inclusive commission that will be put in place that will look at modifications to the constitution. Once there is broad agreement on that, then we will proceed to reinstate it. But the whole idea is that to have the constitution, you need broad agreement.
FP: But when? Weeks, months, years?
MT: I don’t know. The important thing is to get it right, for every Egyptian to feel ownership.
FP: Should Israel be worried about the changes happening in Egypt?
MT: I see no reason why this should affect Israel in any way.
FP: What about Syria?
MT: We would like peace in Syria, a transition to democracy, and we would like Syria to remain united. We would also like the Syrian people to enjoy the same wave of democracy that is now passing through the region.
FP: There have been concerns about Egypt’s instability affecting the price of oil.
MT: I see no effect whatsoever on the price of oil. In the past there were concerns about the direction Egypt is moving, today there is no concern.