- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is Asia editor at Foreign Policy, where he edits, reports, and writes stories from across the region. Previously a Beijing correspondent for Newsweek, Isaac wrote stories on such subjects as the Dalai Lama’s effect on international trade, China’s love affair with rogue states, and crystal meth in North Korea, a country he has visited twice. A fluent Mandarin speaker, Isaac spent seven years living in China prior to joining FP; he has traveled widely in the region and in China. 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 Aug. 14, Egyptian security forces violently disbanded sit-ins held by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted President Mohamed Morsy. Hundreds of people died across the country in the ensuing clashes, and Egypt’s interim president declared a state of emergency. Wednesday’s chaotic events represent the "most serious juncture" Egypt has faced in at least 30 years, Mohamed Tawfik, Egypt’s ambassador to the United States, said in an interview with Foreign Policy, in which he also blamed the Brotherhood for the latest wave of bloodshed and explained why he doesn’t believe this is Egypt’s Tiananmen Square moment. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Foreign Policy: What was the plan to de-escalate this?
Mohamed Tawfik: The plan was originally to clear the sit-ins gradually, in stages, in a way that would not cause casualties. However, when Muslim Brotherhood supporters started shooting at the police, and there were casualties on the police side, it became necessary to finish this thing today.
It’s painful for every Egyptian that we have had these casualties, including 43 police officers killed by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, however the road plan that we have is still the same, it has not changed, we are determined to take the next steps towards democracy and we are not going to allow anyone to hinder these efforts.
FP: Do you blame the Muslim Brotherhood for the violence today?
MT: No doubt in my mind that the government did everything in their power to convince the Brotherhood that these sit-ins could not continue. There were serious reports of people abducted, people tortured, bodies left around the sit-ins. We found a mass grave inside, and they are still digging up the bodies. This stopped becoming an issue of freedom of expression, and became a locus of criminal behavior, and therefore it had to be cleared away. No doubt in my mind that it’s the Brotherhood’s fault.
FP: Isn’t instating the emergency law going to evoke the Mubarak regime? Why take this approach?
MT: The Mubarak regime instituted it for 30 years, which is ridiculous, and at a time when life was perfectly normal. Today when you have 21 police stations attacked, seven churches burned, it’s essential that you put in emergency laws for a temporary period of time, until you manage to restore security.
FP: You’ve been a diplomat for 30 years. Is this the worst crises you’ve seen?
MT: Where we are now is the most serious juncture that Egypt has been in in the last 30 years.
FP: You were ambassador for a year under Morsy. How has your job changed from when the Muslim Brotherhood ruled to now?
MT: I think the year Morsy was in power started off with a lot of hope, and little by little that hope vanished. At the end it was very difficult to defend the Muslim Brotherhood’s policies. Right now it is a more critical situation, but at the same time there is more hope for the future.
FP: What have you seen with Gen. al-Sisi’s government that would give you hope?
MT: First of all this is not al-Sisi’s government. There’s the president and prime minister; al-Sisi is the minister of defense and deputy prime minister. They have taken serious steps towards freedom of the press, established rules for an independent board to oversee government media, they have started a process of national reconciliation.
FP: When we spoke in July, you said this was not a coup. Is this still not a coup?
MT: My views have absolutely not changed.
FP: Why should Washington refrain from cutting ties with Egypt?
MT: It’s obviously Washington’s decision what they want to do, but the relations between Egypt and the United States are of vital importance to both countries, and it’s a matter of mutual interest to preserve the relationship.
FP: Any plans to ban the Muslim Brotherhood?
MT: The issue has to be dealt with within the law and depends on what the competent legal authorities think. It depends on who broke the law and when. This cannot be a political issue.
FP: People have been comparing what’s happening now to the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing, where the government moved in to clear pro-democracy forces. Do you think that’s accurate?
MT: Absolutely not. Most people don’t realize that most casualties did not take place where they had the two sit-ins, but when Muslim Brotherhood attacked citizens, government buildings, churches. This general aggressive behavior led to a very large number of casualties. I don’t recall that happening after Tiananmen Square.
FP: After Tiananmen Square the Chinese government said the same thing you’re saying now, which was that the violence is the fault of a small group of armed people who are breaking the law.
MT: You didn’t have 21 police stations attacked. You didn’t have 43 police officers killed. You didn’t have seven churches attacked and burned, nor police officers mutilated after they were killed. I think the comparison is totally invalid.
FP: What does ElBaradei’s resignation mean for the transition?
MT: I read his move as a personal decision based on personal considerations.
FP: For you personally, what level of violence would need to occur for you to resign?
MT: It’s very difficult to respond to hypothetical questions, but I think my government had no alternative but to take action. The government not only had the right to intervene but the legal obligation. We are certainly very sad that there were casualties, and we mourn all those who have been killed today. Having said that, I think it was the responsibility of the Muslim Brotherhood.